The Good Death: Loss, Legacy, and Levity

Research tells us that every last resident of 19th century Greater Boston is dead today. It’s true. Odds are that almost everyone in the room right now will be gone by the next century. I did a few google searches the other week for the oldest living Americans – they were born in 1904, 1905, 1906. But every time I’d double check if of these remarkable people was still alive, it’d turn out they too had passed on recently as well.

You don’t get to be the oldest living person for very long, it turns out. 

We are all going to die. And we face these signs of that our whole lives – lost pets, lost loved ones, aging bodies. 

Even in our teens and twenties, in the prime of our health, we notice there are years and times and opportunities we are never getting back. Last week, my teenage daughter’s cross country team had their final home meet of the year, senior day – this year my daughter’s last home meet of her high school career. And the seniors and us – their parents – get emotional. Partly because that day is never coming back. We age, and then we die. Gloomy, but true.

We don’t like to talk or think about aging and death very much, though, do we? In a time and place where we’re as good at extending our lifespans as we ever have been, we avoid and fear death as much as ever. 

Which is too bad, because how we age and how we die is a big part of the life well lived, or not. In fact, there’s an old tradition of the experience of a Good Death, a way of approaching death that is one of the crowns of a good life. 

And today, I want to talk about the good death – how we can prepare for it, and how that readiness can be part of today’s good life.

Today is our final talk in our early fall series, “On the Brink of Everything.” Next Sunday, we’ll start five weeks of an annual engagement with some of our church’s core teachings to encourage you on your faith journey, wherever that finds you today. And after that, we’ll be into Advent, our Christmas season.

But I wanted to make sure we got to end our “On the Brink of Everything” series with the biggest change and threat we’re all on the brink of, that being aging and death. 

As it turns out, I’ve got this old school preacherly way into this, an alliterative three point thing going on about loss, and legacy, and levity. And some stories for each of those.

We’ll start by looking at a famous brush with death in the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. It’s a scene of one of the better kings of Israel’s southern land of Judah, and it’s so interesting it’s captured almost verbatim in two different books of the Bible. 

Here’s part of the story from one of them, in the second of the books called Kings. 

II Kings 20:1-6 (CEB)

Around that same time, Hezekiah became deathly ill. The prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son, came to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your affairs in order because you are about to die. You won’t survive this.”

2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, 3 “Please, Lord, remember how I have walked before you in truth and sincerity. I have done what is right in your eyes.” Then Hezekiah cried and cried.

4 Isaiah hadn’t even left the middle courtyard of the palace when the Lord’s word came to him: 5 Turn around. Say to Hezekiah, my people’s leader: This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and have seen your tears. So now I’m going to heal you. Three days from now you will be able to go up to the Lord’s temple. 6 I will add fifteen years to your life. I will rescue you and this city from the power of the Assyian king. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.

So this is a story about so many things. It’s a story about prayer. It’s a story about healing. It’s a story about God’s nature as the great source and being of lovingkindness. God in this story is listening to prayer, is healing, is tender toward this person and people God loves.  

And that is all interesting and important, but this isn’t a talk about any of those things exactly. It’s a talk about the good death, one I’ll suggest that in many ways Hezekiah is not going to have. 

So I want to start by noticing that Hezekiah is utterly unprepared for his own death. He’s sick, it looks like he’s going to die – he’s told as much. Put your affairs in order. And he cannot find the strength to do that. Instead, he cries and cries and cries.  

Now I don’t want to be judgy about this. I might well be the same, if I got seriously ill tomorrow, and was looking at a potentially early death. Who knows how any of us would respond to that news? 

We’re probably less prepared, most of us, than our ancestors were. Again, we’re better than we’ve ever been at postponing death, but we’re also maybe better than we’ve ever been at avoiding it; we’re unfamiliar with this one inevitable possibility. 

100 years ago, in most of the world, most people lived in multi-generational households and most people died in their homes, so most people of all ages, knew what it was to be with someone as they died. 

Most of us, though, do not live in multi-generational community, and most of us die in hospitals, and older and older, and having been unwell longer and longer. So our experience of death is changing. The local surgeon Atul Gwande and others have written about the ways our whole medical complex is bound up with our practice of extending the longevity of our years, but not preparing for death, and so not coming to grips with it, and so not often ready to die well.  

I’ve had the honor to know and pastor people in this congregation who have died good deaths. And in each case, at some point, they’ve stopped fighting it, stopped focusing on a hope for healing and turn-around, and found ways to come to terms and make some sense of their loss. 

One of these people was Julie O’Connor, who’d been a board member here when I started out as your pastor. Julie’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, which gives you odds of a couple more years of life. With lots of great medical care and prayer, she’d beat those odds – by a lot – but at a certain point, she was out of treatment options and coming to terms with her death. 

We held a final prayer meeting for her right here, which I’ll never forget. Because she stood up in that time, and she thanked her church family for our love and support and prayers. And she said, I especially thank this church for helping me accept what’s happening. She said she’d been raised when she was young to believe that all things that happen on earth are God’s will, under God’s tight control. And she said that in her time in this church, she’d come to understand that a loving and powerful God doesn’t control history and circumstances that way. Things like her cancer are not the will of God. She didn’t need to figure out if she was being punished or tested in some way. Awful things happen, for a million reasons, in this broken and incomplete world of ours. God is a personal and present force of healing and love and peace and help in all things, but in the short run, God doesn’t always get God’s way. And that had helped her accept her coming death, that she was suffering something painful and tragic, but that she was still known and beloved and cared for by a good God who had not done that to her. And that gave her peace. She could face her loss. 

So moving to me, her courage in the face of death. By not having to blame it on God or understand a cosmic reason for why it was happening, she could have peace in the face of death, and she could live well at the end. I honor Julie O’Connor’s good death – I hope to remember her courage when my time comes.

We’ve all known people who couldn’t do this. People whose terror grows as they age, people who long before their deaths are unable to age gracefully – always trying to look younger and act younger than their years. People who nurse regrets and brood over things lost and things they fear losing. Again, understandable dispositions, but ones that keep them from knowing peace, and keep them from inhabiting the wisdom and calling of their life in this season. 

Part of preparing for our eventual good death is by learning to face death today. To accept, even embrace, our aging and our losses. To accept, even if not welcome, our eventual deaths. To accept that life will continue, this world will continue without us living in it. 

There’s an ancient Christian tradition that’s meant to help with this. It’s called the momento mori, Latin for moment of death. It’s the spiritual practice of meditating on the eventual moment of our death. Sometimes doing that accompanied by artwork that displays symbols of death, or viewing the cycle of death in the natural world, as we will this fall, and contemplating our eventual death.

The purpose of this isn’t to be morbid or gloomy. In fact, as I’ll remind us as I close, it’s not best to engage this practice if you’re depressed, certainly not if you’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts before, because the point of it is not welcoming death as an escape. It’s meant to simply grow us in wisdom, in acceptance of our eventual end, in a way that helps us live with vitality, treasuring life today, but not pretending it will last forever. 

There are Jewish traditions that do this as well. I’ve always been really struck by Jewish traditions around death and dying, including their beautiful, multi-layered, communal year-long honoring of grief, after a loved one dies. This includes visits in the home after the funeral. It includes prayers and liturgies, remembrances of loss and grief in the community’s worship, throughout the year after one’s death. 

This obviously is for the comfort of those living, to enfold us in loving remembrance. But these practices also serve to remind a community that we all will die, and to prepare us to accept our losses with peace and courage. 

Friends, life is full of losses. You don’t need me to tell you that. You have your own pains, the ones that have happened, and the ones you fear as well. I pray that you can accept these losses with gentleness, saying as you need – This is a moment of suffering. But this too will pass, and there will be more on the other side. I pray you can hold your losses with that hope as well. 

Loss is the hardest side of aging and death but there are opportunities too – opportunities for legacy and levity. 

Let’s return to our story with King Hezekiah.

Hezekiah is feeling good because of release from double jeopardy. He’s healthy again rather than dead. And a devastating invasion from the empire to his north, Assyra, has been repelled. So when ambassadors from a kingdom further off to the East visit, he gladly shows them around his palace. 

II Kings 20: 14-21 (CEB)

14 Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? Where have they come from?”

Hezekiah said, “They came from a distant country: Babylon.”

15 “What have they seen in your palace?” Isaiah asked.

“They have seen everything in my palace,” Hezekiah answered. “There’s not a single thing in my storehouses that I haven’t shown them.”

16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Listen to the Lord’s word: 17 The days are nearly here when everything in your palace and all that your ancestors collected up to now will be carried off to Babylon. Not a single thing will be left, says the Lord.18 Some of your children, your very own offspring, will be taken away. They will become eunuchs in the palace of Babylon’s king.”

19 Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The Lord’s word that you’ve spoken is good,” because he thought: There will be peace and security in my lifetime.

20 The rest of Hezekiah’s deeds and all his powerful acts—how he made the pool and the channel and brought water inside the city—aren’t they written in the official records of Judah’s kings? 21 Hezekiah lay down with his ancestors. His son Manasseh succeeded him as king.

Hezekiah, it seems, is so preoccupied with his own fears of Assyria and of death that he commits this major strategic blunder as a leader. In his short-sighted relief, he welcomes envoys of far-off Babylon to tour his household and all his treasures. 

And Isaiah tells him this was a big, big mistake. Things are set in motion that will lead to the destruction of his nation, and the suffering of his descendants. This becomes his legacy – he did these other great things – waterworks and more – but here he’s known at the end for opening the gates to his people’s eventual destroyer. 

Here’s the kicker – Hezekiah hears the news and is relieved. Like: sucks to be my eunuch grandkids. At least I’m OK. It’s shocking – even more so in the ancient world – how utterly thoughtless he is about his own legacy. 

Politics hasn’t changed that much, I guess. These days our political leaders, some of our business leaders too, seem to also be weighing our current self-interest against the flourishing of future generations. And not making the most favorable choices for their legacy. 

All of us, though, no matter how big or how small our influence, have our legacy to consider. I love that my friends lead a community group for couples over fifty that is called just this – the legacy group. But all of us, regardless of our age, can ask – what is the legacy I’ll be leaving the next generation or two when I’m gone? 

This according to a recent Hidden Brain contest is one of the three main ways humans over the ages have dealt with the terror of aging and death. They’ve tried to live forever – a fools’ errand, but an attractive one, still now. Or they’ve had hopes in resurrection or some form of afterlife. Or they’ve put great care into their legacy, the memory and impact of their lives after they’re gone. 

My maternal grandfather did this. Pop Pop, as we called him, functioned like the patriarch of our family. We all respected his work ethic, his generosity, and his common sense folk wisdom. He organized his finances, in particular, with great care and lived really simply. That, some help and privilege, and some good luck meant that he was able to make a dramatic financial impact for my parents and for me and my two brothers and our families after he passed away. More importantly, we remember and carry in our hearts his love and attention – I carry his name in my name, as do a couple of my nephews. His legacy is strong and beautiful in our family.

Some people go bigger and bolder and more generous on their legacy, extending love and impact well beyond their families. I spent most of last week at a retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, where we focused on leadership for justice and renewal. Our leader was the social psychologist and theologian Christena Cleveland. And she told this story of being propelled more deeply into her work for racial justice. She was working out, listening to a recording with the great Black theologian James Cone, who just passed away last year.

Cone’s work is stunning – his writing is some of the most important writing and thinking about God that anyone in this country has produced. Our staff team discussed one of his books, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, early this year. It’s an amazing book. Anyway, Christena is listening to the recording and hears James Cone say: Everything that I do is for the liberation of Black people. 

And hearing this, Christena stopped, mid-stride on the eliptical trainer, and asked herself: How much am I doing for the liberation of my people? She was busy, she was getting famous, well paid, but this question shifted something in her. It was a watershed moment, that focused and deepened her work and her life choices, that clarified the legacy she wanted to leave in the world.

Legacy is not just a question for older people. Most of us find ourselves thinking more about the legacy we want to leave after 50, if we ever think about it, but considering our legacy throughout our lives is part of how aging can be part of the good life, whether we’re 80 or 20, or anywhere in between. For Christena Cleveland, this moment came to her in her early 30s.

What contribution do you want to make to your family, to your friends, to your culture, to this earth, that will remain after you’re gone? How would you like to be remembered – for your freedom and joy and courage, generosity, and love? Or like Hezekiah, for looking out for yourself, and short-changing the future? 

This is beyond the passage, but I was thinking about it the other day and imagining what might have been for Hezekiah. What if he had heard he had fifteen years left to live, and thought: hey, bonus years! How can I live free? How I live with gratitude? How can I bless the future? How can I approach my own death more light, than heavy? 

I’ve seen that people who prepare for the good death, and people that just age well do so not just making peace with their losses, not just building a beautiful legacy, but learning to live – even in some of their heaviest years – with more levity. 

My favorite Stephen King book is the little novel he published last year called Elevation. He imagines a man who in mid-life begins to weigh less each day while otherwise in excellent health. What happens when gravity ceases to do its work, not on the whole earth, but on a single soul? As it becomes clear that this is isn’t sustainable, that in time he will eventually lift off the earth and soar into the heavens, this man finds he’s able to shake off some of the other heaviness of life.

He starts to live with less regret, with more openness to new people and new ideas. He dares to live with more courage and more joy. 

It’s a weird premise – Stephen King after all – but a beautiful metaphor for the nature of a good life and a good death. To live with more humor, more freedom, more joy, even as our body fails, even as our future shrinks, even as death approaches. 

The first two times I saw someone die, at their bedsides for their final breaths, there was some terror for them – it was not an experience of levity, in that sense not a fully good death. So I’ve looked for others who have gotten lighter as they’ve aged, lighter even as they watched death approach. 

Some of these people have a fierce hope in the loving God they’ll meet after death, and in the loving arms that will enfold them there. So they’re fearless, they feel relief.

Others overflow with gratitude – the crown, I think, of a life of practicing gratitude each day. In one case, I saw a man who couldn’t stop talking about all the ways he loves Jesus. He loved Jesus because his momma taught him to. He loved Jesus because of the people that visited him while he lay on his hospice bed. He loved Jesus because of the kindness of his friends. He loved Jesus for the sky and the flowers, and the taste of communion, and the vitality of his stubborn child. He loved Jesus because of all the life he’s known, and he loved Jesus now that he was dying. So full, his life. And so light with love and gratitude. 

I want to go through my 50s and 60s and 70s and beyond like this – laying down burdens, laughing at the years to come rather than dreading them, treasuring joys and nursing good stories and good times. Free of regret, full of gratitude, full of love. 

When I find myself thinking this way, I think: life’s short. Why not start now? 

If I live in a resurrection faith, why not live more now?

If worship a God who became one of us and beat death, what do I have to fear? 

If risen Jesus took time to enjoy a meal of grilled fish with his friends, maybe I can take time for what brings me joy and renewal.

If Jesus’ friend who lived with the most regret saw Jesus look at him and say – let’s move on, let’s love. We’ve got work to do. Maybe I can let things go; live lighter; move on, love, work, live freely. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Prepare for part of a good death – write a will and a living will, and choose a healthcare proxy.

Some of our congregation are leading a practical seminar you’re invited to, on Sunday, November 3.

You can register at their eventbrite site for Death and Paperwork 101.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

  1. Now and then, consider your own death, and pray as you are led.
  2. If that’s not healthy for you, cherish each day’s life, and invest in relationships with those both older and younger than you.

On Saving Your Soul

This past week I had a phone call week with my eight-year old goddaughter. I got to speak to Mari because I’d been talking to her parents about the hard time she was having in school. There are these two other kids in her class who have been mean, and off and on last year and again this year, they’d been really aggressive with my her. My friends had called me to ask for some advice in dealing with the school, and then they’d given me a chance to talk with Mari too.

I thought she’d feel down and maybe I should remind Mari that she didn’t deserve this. So I asked my goddaughter: do you know how special you are? Do you know that God made you smart and fun and beautiful and important? And she said very matter-of-factly, “Yes, I do.” Duh? Of course, like these were the most obvious truths about herself.

And we talked a little more, but this was that moment that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Of course Mari knows she’s special and smart and beautiful and important. She has good parents who have told her that and shown her that a thousand times. No bit of bullying or classroom chaos was changing that today or tomorrow. 

Of course Mari knows who she is. You and me, the grownups, we’re the ones that lose track of who we are. 

Years ago, the psychologist Mary Pipher wrote Reviving Ophelia, a little book about adolescent girls, and how they take in pressure and criticism and all manner of jacked up stuff in society regarding girls and women, and they take those messages and that pain inward and shrink down as they lose track of who they are. 

Thank God none of this is my goddaughter’s story yet, but in a way, it’s a lot of ours, I think. 

I’ve been thinking about how we can lose track of ourselves, of our fundamental identities, and about the kind of inner work that grounds us and centers us, helps us be at peace and be at home no matter where we are or what we’re going through.

We’ve got two weeks left in our series On the Brink of Everything.  And in the book by Parker Palmer that inspired this series, there are chapters about reaching out and about reaching in. Writing from his perspective as an 80-year old, Palmer has noticed that as we go through life, we can get more and more isolated, thus his call to keep reaching out. But we can also get more and more lost, thus his call to reach in. To keep asking: Who am I? And What can I do with my pain? 

These questions have taken me to a particular place in the scriptures, to the big letter in the middle of the New Testament, the one called Romans.

I’ve been reading and reading about Romans a lot the past few years, and this fall, I’ve started studying this letter each week with a few of you. I’m leading a community group right out there in the lobby every Saturday morning from 9:30 to 11 – you’re all invited. There are many other community groups too, of course – they’re maybe the best things we have going at Reservoir, so I hope you can be part of one. I’m loving mine. In my group, each week we spend about half an hour connecting with one another and about an hour talking about a short section of this part of the Bible.

 It’s been really fun so far, because if you didn’t grow up with much Bible in your life, Romans is confusing. But if you did grow up around the Bible, Romans was likely misused and weaponized – a religious handbook of who’s in, and who’s out with God, and how to get on the right side of that line. But as we’re reading Romans, we’re finding that it’s something else entirely. 

The author named Paul was a Jewish rabbinical student who for a brief time zealously persecuted the early first century followers of Jesus before he became one himself. Then, for about 25 years, Paul became the leading ambassador for the story of Jesus – what he called the good news of Jesus – throughout the Roman empire, writing several letters during that time that eventually became part of our Bibles. 

In Romans, he gets what for him is the very exciting opportunity to write to the little house church communities at the very heart of the empire, in what was then the largest city in the world, maybe the first ever million person city of Rome. 

These Roman house churches were on the whole pretty marginalized people, for whom the questions, “Who am I?” And, “What do I do with my pain?” would have been really important.

Half of them were women. And as a woman, you couldn’t hold public office, you couldn’t vote. Your education would stop when she was young. You was the property of her father until you was married off as a teen, when you became the property of your husband, to whom you would be expected to be totally faithful, even though the same wasn’t expected of him. 

Many of the Roman house church members were also Jews, a religious and ethnic minority in the city. They had been expelled from Rome a decade earlier, which tells you something about the kind of minority experience they lived. Resented, misunderstood, scapegoated.

And then of course many members of the Roman house churches were slaves. Children of parents who had large debts, or captives or immigrants from the edges of the empire, slaves were seen as less than fully human. Cut off from their cultures and religion and language and family, they worked without payment, they were raped with impunity. Their children, if they had them, could be taken from them and sold. 


These were many of the people Paul addressed in this letter – people who knew pain, people who struggled to understand who they were now, and how they could be at home. 

To these people, Paul wrote about what he called the gospel, or the good news of Jesus. Here’s just a little sampling of that.

Romans 8:15-17, 22-27, 35-39 (CEB)

15 You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.

22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 23 And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. 24 We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? 25 But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.

26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 27 The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.

35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

We are being put to death all day long for your sake.

    We are treated like sheep for slaughter.

37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

I’m sure you hear a lot of language of hope in these excerpts, but also a lot of reference to pain.

In Romans, Paul affirms our experience of this world and our lives as incomplete. Much of Romans is a book of lament – sadness and anger over the way things are today. Our violence, our judginess, our addictive compulsions toward what is not best for us, our human and societal divisions, our loss of connection to a beautiful, loving God. 

Here, Paul calls our pain groans. Pains and sighs we can’t always even find words for. And the pain Paul alludes to isn’t just human pain but the pain of the whole earth. All of us, all the animal and plant species under threat, marine life gasping for oxygen, overmined mountains, deforested fields, spoiled soil all groaning and suffering, waiting for God to bring new life. Panting as if in labor for God’s new birth renewal. 

The good news of Jesus doesn’t seem to first eliminate pain, but draw it out into the open, give it voice and yearning and direction. 

I grew up being taught not to do this. I was taught, I think, that it wasn’t good to have pain. No one told me this, but it was taught me nevertheless. 

My therapist asked me once, when you were sad as a kid who did you tell about it, and I told her nobody. For many years. My family was really nice in a lot of ways. My mom in particular. She made cookies and cake and comfort food. Once in high school, my dad could tell I was bummed out, and he let me cut school for a day so we could go to a chocolate shop together. (Is it clear yet how deep the roots of my sweet tooth run?) My dad wrote a note I could bring to school that said, Steven was excused from school. He was absent yesterday because he had a low grade fever. Get it, “low grade” fever? My dad still talks about that note, like it was the cleverest thing ever. 

My parents were great in many ways, but there wasn’t a lot of space in our house to express pain. 

I remember as a teenager, the first time I suffered a major ankle sprain. It was bad – we didn’t have great health insurance, maybe none, so there weren’t MRIs done or anything, but I heard that loud pop, and I was on crutches for weeks and weeks, I know I tore stuff in there. And I’d resprain that ankle again and again for years. 

But when I got off the ground, yelping in pain, trying to hop inside to the couch from where I’d been playing basketball with my brother. And what I remember him saying is: what’s wrong with you? Why are you so sensitive? Cut it out.

It sounds kind of awful, but I might have done the exact same thing, if the tables had been turned. 

My family knew about being stoic, about soldiering forward, but dealing with pain, not so much. So no surprise, there’s some family history of other channels for that pain – of addiction, of defensiveness, of lashing out, of being emotionally shut down – a lot of that one – but not so much history of talking about our pain. 

We carry these habits of not dealing with our pain, don’t we?

The other day, Grace and I were talking about this thing that stresses us both out because it hurts, and I told her, you know that makes me really sad too. And she was like: you should tell me that sooner, because it feels kind of lonely when I’m the only one affected. 

And I was like, you know me, I stuff my feelings down before I talk about them. Sorry, I’m working on it. I’ll get there one day. 

And I will – I’ve been working on emotional intelligence, at noticing and dealing with my experiences for decades. I’ve been reaching in, as Parker Palmer would say – developing an inner life, trying to pay attention to my soul, for a long time because it’s good for me. It helps me have better relationships, more joy, a more fully alive existence in the world. It helps me get back more to that soulful place where my goddaughter Mari lives. That I know I have pain, but I’m seen and loved, and I’ll be OK.

But sometimes I worry about us all in this.

We live in such emotionally volatile, and emotionally stuffed down times. You may be aware that American life expectancy actually dropped a little recently, which hasn’t happened in ages. And there are a lot of reasons for that. Some of it is uneven public health and health care access in our country. But some of it is our opiod and suicide epidemics. We’re seeing people find powerful ways to deal with their pain, but ways that end lives and rip apart communities, rather than building us up and healing us. 

Now I know there are a lot of factors that go into our suicide epidemic and our opiod epidemic. Personal stuff, systemic stuff, and as someone that volunteers in suicide prevention, as someone who like many of you, knows people who’ve been ravaged by drug addiction – I’m not going to pretend to explain these epidemics in this space.  I’m certainly not going to stand here and cast shade on the victims, as if it’s all their fault. 

But one part of the story, in both cases, is people without good ways to express and deal with pain. To numb out, or to just end life entirely, has become the most viable pain management tool for way too many of us. 

Part of the good news of Jesus is to affirm that the way the world is ordered includes a fair bit of suffering. That the way humanity has ordered our lives and our world has compounded that suffering a fair bit. 

In Romans, Paul is like: women, slaves, fellow Jews – God sees you. God hears you. God cares about your pain. God is angry alongside you, God too is impatient to birth new ways of life with you. Let’s do better. 

The “you” in Romans is always plural. Paul is writing to communities, not just to individuals, inviting them to know and hold each other’s pain, to offer solace and comfort, to help one another. 

When we bury our pain, when we numb it out, even when we just use our work and our phones to endlessly distract ourselves – which, let’s be real, is maybe the biggest way we’re all numbing out, losing our souls, avoiding inner work, by keeping so busy and so distracted that we’re rarely alone with our own thoughts. When we do this, we bury stuff alive, not dead. 

And then it comes back at us. 

We get consumed by bitterness and anger. Or we look for escapes. Men my age in particular, if we’re not doing inner work, processing pain, experiencing emotions, cultivating our souls, then most of us are addicted to porn or alcohol  or something, or we’re doing something foolish like having an affair. That’s just the odds. 

We need something better than this. We want to be fully alive, don’t we? 

That takes noticing our pain, giving it expression, and giving it grace – accepting this part of life. 

I do this through my daily examen – a prayer practice where in the morning or the evening, I think about and write down the best and worst parts of life that day. That helps me notice, helps me start to talk to God about those things, or respond to them. 

I do this by learning to talk with my wife and some other friends about my fears and disappointments. In my weekly community group, one of the questions we ask every single week is either how could my life be better, or how do I need help? 

God sees your pain, my friends – the big, big ones and the so called little ones too. Eve the stuff you wonder if it should be such a big deal; pain is pain. God hears your groaning, even the stuff you can’t put words to, Jesus and the Spirit of God turn that into prayer for you. 

Your pain is part of the labor pains of all of creation, part of our shared yearning with God for something better in life. For the world that Jesus will co-create with us. So let’s notice our pain. Let’s take the time to tell God about it. Let’s, with people we trust, tell each other about it. And let’s hold our pain as gently and kindly as God does, with the hope that this is part of the process of renewal, not the end of the story. 

And in our pain, I want to invite us to remember who we are. This is part of my goddaughter’s secret, I believe, to being fully alive even when life is hard. There’s no doubt in her mind where she belongs, with whom she belongs, and how much she is loved. 

This too is the good news of Jesus – that God has called us adopted children. That as with all good adoptive parents, we never need to fear we’ll be rejected or sent back. We’re real children of God, able to speak freely and intimately, heirs to the freedom and blessing that God has for us. 

Just as we can count on suffering as Jesus did, so we can count on the life and luminous victory we call glory. We’re God’s kids, the ones God enjoys and loves. Nobody and nothing can take that away from us.  

This is who we are. 

It’s hard for us to know where we are. In my house, we’re getting ready to send our first child out into the world, and I think about how at times when people in the past were apprenticed into careers, already married and having kids, our kids are still growing up and asking: Who am I? What should I become? We don’t know. 

We’re transient too – we move a lot. And all this freedom is great, but it makes knowing who we are so much harder. We get disconnected from our roots, disconnected from our home communities, disconnected from the land and the places we know. 

Again, the freedom of our age is great. But it disconnects a lot of us from the usual sources of telling us who we are – home communities, home land and place, home people and roots. Identity – knowing who we are – takes a lot of work. 

We end up with a lot of not so great ways of answering these questions of identity. A lot of us find these pockets, these “tribes” people sometimes call them, of identity where we define ourselves by all the things we aren’t. 

We’re the people who don’t watch that Fox News nonsense. Or we’re the people who aren’t getting brainwashed by the liberal media. A lot of that these days, right? 

When I was growing up, part of my identity that I didn’t even realize at the time was that I wasn’t one of these people I would have thought as having a race or a culture. I was what I considered to be a normal American. You know, a white person, middle class, generations of roots in this country, ancestors long ago from these little places in Northern Europe where I’d never been.

There’s been a lot of reflection and study on this so-called White identity, or this illusion of White normalcy that people with my background often grow up with. Where people of color have a race or a culture, but you’re normal. Where foods that taste good get called ethnic foods, and your food is just food. As if all food isn’t ethnic, which just means from a culture. 

This was part of my passive identity growing up, and if you think of yourself as normal, then you think of other people as abnormal. And that kind of white normalcy is a big part of the injustice and division we live with today. It’s not a great identity. 

People in the first century had these issues too. There was Roman privilege and normalcy. Roman citizens thought of themselves as people, and people outside the empire as barbarians. There were identity constructs around women vs. men, slaves vs. free, Jew vs. Greek. In many ways, Romans is about dismantling these poor identity formation constructs, empowering people that have been diminished by them, encouraging others to set aside their privilege. 

It’s about a better way of answering the question:Who am I? The good news of Jesus says a better way of answering that question for all of us is to say: I am a child of God. 

All of me – the parts I show the world, and the parts I hide – all of me is a child of God. All of me – the parts I like, the parts I don’t, the joys and triumphs, the failings and the pain – all of me is a child of God. 

I have a so-called race. I have roots. I have culture. I have language and habits and preferences and sex and gender and likes and disgusts and hopes and fears. And my identity needn’t be whether those things are common or not, whether they’re empowered or not. That’s not a great way to define myself, by status. No, but what is true is that all of me is seen and known by God. God loves me, God chooses me.

God loves you, God chooses you – not as somebody else, but as who you are today. God has said yes to you. God has adopted you. God listens to you. God would let you cut school, cut work when you’re struggling, take you to your favorite chocolate store. But God would turn to you too, and ask how are you doing? What’s on your mind? What’s in your heart? It’s gonna get better, you know. There’s a glory coming, a better day ahead. This is just the beginning, and beginnings are hard. But I’m here. I see you. No one can take you away from me. Nothing can make me stop loving you. You are my child. 

This is the best way I know to find who we are. The healthiest way for us all too, that we’re God’s beloved children, placed in diverse communities of other children of God, there to learn to love and accept one another, and to birth God’s new creation together. 


Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Give pain good channels: pay attention to this symptom, give it expression, give it grace.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Tell yourself and your friends all the stories about how all of you is God’s beloved child. 

On the Brink of Encounter

Hi everyone- it’s lovely to be here with all of you. 

I’m Ivy as Steve mentioned. “Happy October!” 

I love summer so much – that it is very stretching for me to use those two words “Happy” and “October”, so close in a sentence together.  September however, did a fine job of setting up October – in a way that I can genuinely and excitedly say, “Happy October”. 

I’m also excited for our Fall season here at Reservoir, and I’m enjoying the sermon series we are in called, “On the Brink of Everything”. Inspired by a little book by author, and quaker, Parker Palmer.  It’s a series that we felt would work well as a way to explore what it is to live in these fracturing times. If you’ve been around the last few weeks you’ve heard Steve and Lydia talk along these themes, of being on the brink of “chaos”, the brink of “overwhelm” and on the brink of “nothing” – and I’ve been thankful for this small phrase in the ways that it allows us to touch the baseline trauma we may be experiencing in our days.   This little book though, also helps us to imagine embodying the “fiercely honest and gracious wholeness that is ours to claim at every stage of life,” (Krista Tippett).  Parker Palmer himself, is looking out at the horizon of getting older – and his book was also inspired by a conversation with a friend of his – who has a toddler and also observing a young one looking out at the horizon of life.  

Today, I’d love to take us in a direction – where we really consider that “fierce, and honest and gracious wholeness”, and how it is that we can really claim that with Jesus..  So I want to talk about being on the Brink of Encounter. Encountering, a living God at every turn in our lives. Because, I think we are always on the brink of falling deeper into ourselves and deeper into knowing God in a way that has real power – power that can be game-changing in our fractured world.  Encounters with God can reveal to us that we have built within us a “survival kit” that includes surprising tools like vulnerability, intimacy and imagination.

If God is a God who is abundant in eternal, transformative love and tenderness and power – then it’s pretty WILD to think that it is available for us to touch and utilize in our LIVED experiences.   And so I think God’s invitation is to keep mining and discovering it, to not assume that we’ve had our fill, or know all the ways to encounter God… but that we could always be engaged with more. And it’s this ever-evolving display of God’s-self that God wants us to be in constant contact with. 

So for those of you today, who are comfortable with the ways you encounter Jesus, AND for those of you who are done trying to encounter God … and all of us in between –   I want to challenge you to be open to surprise, to engage your imagination and be willing to stretch beyond what is already familiar to you – and to dip into the great mystery of God’s presence. 

I think the implications of that posture, are huge – and also breathtaking. 

We can learn from history – and get a constant pulse through the daily news — how easily we forget what it means to be human.  We can forget that underneath every inequity, every act of  racism, and oppression and violence and sickness and hurdles to access of healthcare and education – is a human being.  Real life people with stories and souls, and voices and families that we live alongside. Yet, even in our most genuine efforts to bring about change (which are valid and needed),  we are quick to bundle people up under policies, and laws and votes, ideologies – losing track of the face of the one we hoped to help.   

I heard and learned a lot about how to “help people” in my faith community growing up.  It focused a great deal on biblical literacy and the accompanying moral rules that would construct a good life, (some explicitly told and some powerfully inferred).  We read a lot about Jesus. We read all the wild stories of Jesus doing strange and unexpected things in ways that seemingly helped the people that encountered him. And I would spend a fair amount of time doing this –  weekly – sometimes twice a week.

And then after each meeting of study, we all went home. 

And come back the next week – to learn and to study Jesus more.

The picture for me of what “help” and “power” could look like with Jesus  – was found in the pages of the Bible. And I’m so thankful in many ways for this foundation…

But I think I knew  in my small, young self that God had a greater, more vast ambience and resonance than what was being presented in my faith experience…. Because the dissonance between the picture of this vivid, lively Jesus in the scripture I read- was distinct – as compared to what seemed to be a “sleepy” Jesus in my life. 

I didn’t know how to enact all my knowledge of Jesus – to wake up either myself – or – him – in an experiential way.  And yet I had a hunch that ‘experience’ had to be at the heart of spirituality.

The prejudice of our modern minds, somehow comes into play…  Because it often suggests that knowledge must be something we can possess  – and often as a prerequisite to experience. To be informed – to be well resourced with data,  IS TO BE prepared for what any encounter might bring – including (in my experience) encounters with God.  

If you go out for a trek in the woods – it is good to be prepared for what experience could occur – it is wise to have the (bottles of water, extra dry-wicking sweater, carabiner, the duct tape… )… or in my case – the whiskey ….. just in case something should happen.

We want to possess knowledge, to circumvent any surprises.

We don’t love the idea deep down- of the  unknown, of surprise, of having our “heart be caught off guard and blown wide open” (as the poet Seamus Henney says). That all sounds frightening to us – I think

Knowledge that we can possess, (available to us at our very fingertips) – allows us to feel in control, to suppress the unmooring feeling of being caught off guard.  What we also suppress is wonder, and awe and vulnerability and intimacy. 

My friend Sarah awhile ago made a simple comment in a community group that we were both in, that has really stuck with me. We were in the midst of “studying a story about Jesus” – and it was really enlightening and rich, in a lot of ways.  And at some point, Sarah leaned back and said, “you know what I would really like? Is for Jesus to just show up in my car, and sit in the passenger seat next to me. That’s the kind of Jesus I’d be really into right now.” 

Her comment cut through all the discussion we were having, about Jesus that was primarily heady – and nailed me right in the heart.  And it got me in touch with my own hunger of that kind of knowing, of that kind of imagination, of wanting that type of encounter with Jesus to be true. 

An encounter with Jesus, requires a kind of knowing, that emerges from our imagination  – that we can’t predict, prove, or stamp as true.  But one that will bring us and Jesus back into a co-present reality… even if we imagine our way there.   

About 5 years ago I preached my first sermon here.   I talked about the love of God (shocker!), and in particular a moment – a memory that I had of my Dad, when I was young. We were driving along a familiar road at twilight – I spotted some deer in a field and he turned the car around to view them – and then turned to me in the car and said “Nice eyes, Ivy”.  

As I drove here that morning – to preach my first sermon – down my own familiar road – re-working some transitions in the talk – a deer stepped out into the middle of the road, from the side woods.   And my heart skipped 1,000 beats – because I was startled – and also because I knew I had encountered God. 

A friend of mine has told the story of his mother, who was bedded with grief following the death of her own mother.  And where upon waking from a nap – she met Mary, the mother of God. She woke to the sound of this woman coming into her room – dressed in tweed and soft clothes, in her 70’s, grey hair.  She described the depression she felt of the mattress, from the weight of this woman – as she sat down on the bed where she lay (Padraig O’Tuama, In the Shelter). 

I have friends tell me they encounter God on a mountain top. 

I have friends tell me they encounter God on the side of a trail – panting for air – before they get to the mountain top.

A woman named Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus as a gardener.

My brother, in his 8th year of life – had been sick for 3 months – bed ridden. Muscles atrophied. He hadn’t walked in weeks. The doctors were puzzled.  Prayers gushed into his story, from far and wide.. He woke one night – convinced he was going to die… and encountered God. 

The next morning – he bounded into my room, up a flight of stairs  and declared his hope to go to the beach that day.

An old testament prophet, Elijah – encountered God not in the powerful wind, or earthquake or fire – as prophets had KNOWN to encounter God, but in a thin, quiet voice that came to him.

I encounter God these days, in a pair of golden finches – these birds that peck and find their way through the sunflowers in my front yard.

The vividness, and strangeness and unbelievable-ness of the stories we read in scripture of people encountering God – are true too – in our own stories today. 

And yet you might have a myriad of responses listening to these “encounter” vignettes:  Were those encounters really with God? Are they historically accurate? Were they fabricated over time?  A result of a high fever perhaps? Isn’t that just maybe imagination run wild?  Or a result of relying too much on your feelings?

See somewhere along the line – we have become afraid of the unknown, of surprise – – of getting something wrong in the mix – God forbid – we would get God wrong.  And what we are doubting when we ask for proof – or the truth – is our own self and intuition, which perhaps is where truth actually resides. 

Somewhere we have been swept into the binary way of believing that if we FEEL something we are not THINKING… and if we THINK something than we are not really experiencing it – but I’ve been helped by the words of John O’Donohue.  I spent some time in a tiny county of Ireland, recently, where he was a priest for many years… and he says, 

“True thought is full of feeling and feeling is luminous with thought”, which means that the “the act of knowing – is a function of the imagination” (John O’Donohue).

Infact, imagination IS where the human and the divine are co-present!

So maybe the generative question isn’t whether or not,  the encounters we call into question are true or not…maybe the generative question instead is whether IT IS TRUE that the encounter helped (adapted from Padraig O’Tuama).

“Did it help?”

And if “yes” – then maybe it doesn’t matter how it happened.

AND THIS IS where I want to go DEEP into scripture for a moment – because encounters with God at a baseline HELP US.  They help us become more fully HUMAN — more in touch with our feelings – with intimacy and vulnerability – and encounter with God, helps us continue to grow and evolve and transform, not only for ourselves – but for the whole of humankind.

I invite all of you to  encounter God in this LIVING word of scripture:

Mark 5:25-34 (NIV)

25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Here we have a Biblical story of a nameless woman who encounters Jesus.

She has bled for 12 years. Marginalized on multiple accounts; she’s a woman – with no male relative to support or advocate for her – she is financially destitute, she is religiously “unclean”, and makes anything or anyone she touches “impure”. By cultural norms, she is unfit to live within city limits. So she exists in isolation, disempowered and shrouded in shame.  The laws and traditions of her time – have dehumanized her. She has no identity.
She is human to no one.  

And while I’m thankful for the written account that Mark gives us here (and Matthew and Luke who give us of this same story in the other gospels)… I would LOVE to imagine this morning of how this woman would tell her own story of encountering Jesus.  Of how she’d tell her story to her kids –  that might have surprisingly become part of her on-going story.  Or how she’d tell her story to her only human contacts – the lepers, or prostitutes, or the young rich men – or the tax collectors, who had also encountered Jesus.

Maybe she started by telling her part of the story – that comes before the story we read here in print – of how for those 12 years of suffering and bleeding – she imagined.  How she imagined every evening that the shadows moving along the stones in the street where she slept – were God.   And how those shadows comforted her, built in her a belief that God could be One who was consistently present and close in her pain.  How she imagined that in the call of the golden finches that greeted her every morning – was a song that told of joy and a promise of healing  – sung to her by God.   And maybe she’d tell of how that ability to imagine a God like this – built in her the capacity to trust herself, to be resilient …..and to imagine the not -yet-realized presence of a surprising and unexpected incarnate God – who just might, someday walk down a crowded, familiar, street in her neighborhood.  

Maybe she tells the part of the story where she admits that she had grown comfortable being out of the sight of society, comfortable being invisible.  Of how living behind the backs of people became more comfortable than seeing faces.  Of how the earth, became her temple of dirt, and dust and stone and blood.

Maybe she told how surprising it was that when she encountered Jesus he didn’t lecture her, or the crowd,  about personal sins or specific religious views and practices – or how to get back to the holy – but instead invited her back to the ordinary.   He invited her to tell her “whole truth”- Her STORY! “Why was she there? What did she hope for? Why did she long to touch his clothes?”

Maybe she’d tell of how achy and vulnerable it was for her to become visible again.

Maybe she would tell how the roots of her faith – were found in the holiest of places –  in the shadows, in the dust, in the birds, and in the grit – of life.

Maybe she tells lastly, the part of her story of how she had forgotten her name – of how long it had been since anyone had called her by name.  Maybe she’d be shy in sharing how she’d taken up the spiritual practice of imagining names for herself… Ones that she loved, but names she also needed for survival: First of course, “Eve” – because it means “to live”… and “Ruth” too, which means, “friend & companion”,  and “Rebekah” which means to “join a family.” 

Maybe she told how her forgotten name, was what terrified her most about going and touching Jesus – because she didn’t know how to identify herself, if he asked. 

And maybe she became embarrassed still, to tell her children the intimate parts of the story –  where she knows that she turned crimson red – as Jesus turned to her in the crowd – where in his face and his eyes – she recovered long lost words of her vocabulary – not only her name, but words like “tenderness” and “gentleness” and “touch”.  And how she trembled with a sensation, a feeling of overwhelming love as she touched his clothes, the intimate exchange of His love and power, as it poured out of his body – and moved into her skin.  And how in His voice, her heart was caught off guard and blown wide open with the name he gave her, of  “Daughter”… stunned that he could encapsulate all she had hoped for in a name, “to live, to be befriended, to belong in a family”, to be human again.  The power of name. 

I hope she told these parts of her story – and more parts that she’d discover over time to everyone she met….  I hope she made her kids yawn with boredom at how much she repeated these stories of God’s goodness and realness and truth to her…I hope if any questions arose it was, “mom – were you helped?” I hope she had a thousand new names given to her, like “prophet”, “courageous”, “informed”, “critical” and “imaginative”..

I hope those names are names that we can give to ourselves as we continue to encounter God. 

We are all on the brink of  ENCOUNTER with God. An encounter that sometimes gives us immediate healing… and sometimes is a long, long road of accompanied grief,  and sometimes is a mere, but fleeting feeling …..  

But all experience builds in us the survival kit – for our wild hike of life – with intimacy, vulnerability and imagination. 

Here is where we free fall into our fiercely honest and gracious wholeness that God helps us claim. 

And with that……. a knowledge that surpasses all understanding planted deep in our souls.

I think my friend Sarah has it right – to hunger for a presence of God  – close, real and in our ordinary lives. ANd it trains in ourselves an ability to trust our intuition – to recognize Jesus wherever he might show up – and to utilize our hopes and dreams of who God could be to us, and BE SURPRISED by who he reveals us to be in the encounter!…  

To believe that God could be in our passenger seat, is a stretch of the imagination – but not that much of a stretch if we believe that he is not just as a silent observer of our life – but as one who eagerly engages and  buckles up next to us…

And one who offers to hold all the stuff we drag into the car…. He takes into his lap our ½ eaten egg sandwich – our bags of messages that we’ve ingested from society, with our sense of loneliness and our own self-deprecating dialogue – he holds it all.. and invites us to tell him more of our “whole truth”, our story – meanwhile likely complimenting us on our song choice in the car, humming along – driving down our familiar roads,  calling us by name at every turn … “Ivy – you are doing just great”, or “Nice eyes, Ivy”.

This is the kind of knowledge that is so intimate and so vulnerable, to express as TRUTH.  And it’s disorienting because it’s not the kind of knowledge that we can possess first – it’s the kind of knowledge that WE gain by encountering God –
it is the kind of knowledge that possesses us and infuses a knowing within us” (Richard Rohr).

I don’t think I can read, or imagine the story of this bleeding woman without hearing my own story echoed in it  … and I don’t think we can read this story without imagining the freedom and power it is to be called by God….. to be our exactly human selves. To bring back into view – our full, visible humanity.

This is the power of encounter.  To be deeply aware of who we are …To be deeply anchored in the presence of God. This has transformative power as we act and walk and move in our lives – it has the power to “stop people from their superficial assumptions, from their efforts to damage, marginalize and hurt others (Mary Moore, p. 44), because truth of this degree is a living force.  

I wonder as the bleeding woman made her way out of the crowd that day –  how many people saw her? As she made her way back to her familiar road – I wonder how many people reached out to touch her, stopped her to ask if it really happened? And how many people stopped her to see if she could help them become human again. 

This is what truth does, it articulates, exposes, restores, and surprises us.

The challenge for us today, is to believe that all of this is truth.  That we do indeed encounter God in so many beautiful, known ways – in prayer – with a candle in silence, or in loud, charismatic ways – or in worship songs – or in Scripture study – or in wildlife – or at the top of a mountain – or in the rut and grit and dirt of life…. and also that we can encounter God in a host of other surprising ways we cannot yet name, or know….  

Peace I give to you”…. He says to this woman and to us- “Peace I give to you”.    In wellness and in wholeness. So do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”. (John 14:27) – and “do let your hearts be caught off guard – and blown wide open.” (Seamus Henney)

Spiritual Practice & Reflection: 

  1. Practice expectancy with prayer: “God help me to let go of any assumptions or expectations that I may have of you, and today could you catch my heart off guard and blow it wide open?”
  2. Reflect: “Where did I encounter God today?”  and “how did it help?”

Maybe the helpful knowing of Jesus loving you deeply, in your life – helps you lead with compassion and tenderness to see the human beings in your midst. 


  1. Discover the human beings in your midst. Start by making eye contact and learn their names and their pronouns.

Call into view someone else’s “whole truth.”

Dear God could you  remind us this morning – that on any crowded street, on any familiar road  – we can encounter you. Could you help us GOD to know – that we are not just imagining a life that could be good and powerful with you in it – but that we are actively,  presently living it. 

On the Brink of Political Chaos

For eight weeks this fall, we’re riffing off the title of Parker Palmer’s beautiful little book On the Brink of Everything. It’s a book about discovery and wonder and about change and threats, and our little pastoral team felt something timely and important in this. 

Today I felt like I needed to say a few things about an area of life where many of us experience fear and threat and frustration, that area being politics. Now I know that some of you love it when I connect our sacred texts and faith with contemporary controversy. For some of you, that seems important. I also know that some of you hate it when I do this. You want Sundays to be a refuge from the controversy and turmoil of public life, and it’s upsetting to you if church feels at all political. I just want you to know I’m aware of this and the rest of this series will go to other places entirely.

That said, politics is getting louder, not quieter. We’re already into our interminably long election season. And just this past week, we had the announcement of the start of presidential impeachment hearings. I checked both the Herald and the Globe’s most frequently read and sent stories the day I was working on this talk, and Boston being Boston, the leading story on each paper was about the Red Sox or the Patriots, but all the others were about politics. 

Our scriptures and our faith do not come out of a democratic age, so the vocabulary is different, but themes of politics and public life are all over the place. Because faith is both a private and a public matter. And today, I’m not going to tell you who do vote for or what cause to support in politics. We’d never endorse someone here, and I’d never expect this community to agree on our politics. But I do want to encourage us toward spiritually healthier political engagement. Toward thinking and attitude about politics that helps us live well; that helps us be healthy, generous people; that helps us be engaged in public life, however it is we do that, both usefully and joyfully, as I think we’re meant to be. 

I’ve got three postures I want to encourage today – no surprises, they’re all in your program already under, “Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing.”

As I said, the Bible’s talk about public life and politics was written in really different conditions than ours. Most of the Bible was written by people of a minority group, living under large, colonial empires. They didn’t know anything about voting or democracy, presidents or parliaments. And when the Bible’s writers do look back on what they’d consider their own independent government, they looked back to a four hundred period of the ancient kingdom of Israel, that for most of those years, was divided into two small kingdoms – Israel to the North, and Judah to the South.

We’re going to read a short excerpt of a passage that comes from the culture and politics of the southern kingdom of Judah, when they were threatened by the empire of Assyria, who had already conquered their cousins to the north. Here’s a bit of what Isaiah has to say to them:

Isaiah 31:1-3 (CEB)


Doom to those going down to Egypt for help!

    They rely on horses,

    trust in chariots because they are many,

    and on riders because they are very strong.

But they don’t look to the holy one of Israel;

    they don’t seek the Lord.

2 But God also knows how to bring disaster;

    he has not taken back his words.

God will rise up against the house of evildoers

    and against the help of those who do wrong.

3 Egypt is human and not divine;

    their horses are flesh and not spirit.

The Lord will extend his hand;

    the helper will stumble,

    those helped will fall,

    and they will all die together.


If you are afraid, it’s natural to think – what can help me? Who or what can remove this fear? Can make me secure? If you feel like something important to you is under threat, it’s natural to hope that someone will save you.

For Judah, this was Egypt. If the big, bad neighbors to the north threaten you, perhaps the kingdom to the South can save you. Lean on Egypt. If one side fails you, the other side will save the day.

But the prophets again and again warned against the dangers of this way of thinking. They were like Egypt doesn’t have your best interests in mind either. They too want what they want for themselves. They are not the good guys coming to save you.

And here, Isaiah says that people you think will save the day are also nowhere near as powerful as they say they are or you hope they will be. Egypt seems powerful, and the symbols and technology of their power look impressive. But they aren’t. 

Egypt after all is human, not God. In Hebrew, these words are adam and el. El is kind of a generic word for God, that could mesh with any religion. And adam refers to humankind, both the original human figure Adam and literally “the ground” or “dust”. And their technology of power, their horses, are flesh, weakness, not spirit, vitality, life. 

God, who is unseen Spirit, is the giver and renewer of life. Egypt is just human, just dust. What you want from power is to save you, to protect or give you life, but they can’t do that. They’re just people like you, they’re only dust. 

 I’d say this holds true in our politics as well. People that promise the world, people we think are coming to save the day, just aren’t. They have their own things they want, likely more than they have our good in mind. And they have way less power than they say they do, or than you think they have. 

I went through this kind of painful but important season a few years ago that I don’t think I’ve ever told you about. 

I had just turned 40, and I was new as your lead pastor. And our church was going through some change and conflict back then that wasn’t easy for any of us, and it certainly wasn’t easy for me. And I found myself hoping that there would be mentors or wise people in my life that would show me or tell me what to do. 

But there weren’t. In fact, again and again, people I thought I might look up to for help were just disappointing me. My parents, someone I’d considered to be a pastor in my life, some other people I hoped were going to step up as mentors. In one case, I had been let down and disappointed, in kind of a spectacularly  awful way. In another case, I was learning new things about that person that called my trust into question. And in another, people were just too busy with their own problems to be available to me. 

I remember talking to a friend of mine about this, wondering if at a certain age, we run out of heroes, sometimes even run out of people to look up to. And my friend encouraged me to pray about this. And when I talked to God about this, I was reminded of this thing I used to teach when I was an English teacher. Back then, I’d taught coming of age literature a fair bit and always told my teenage students that in coming of age literature, one thing that happens is that the main character learns that adults are people too. That grownups have all their own flaws and limitations. And I remember feeling like God was showing me I was going through my own mid-life version of the same thing: learning again that all of us are figuring out our own stuff, and that no one is perfect. No one’s going to show up with a plan for me. No one is coming to save me. 

And dreary as this sounds, I remember being aware that from God’s perspective, it was good news that I was seeing this. It’s a good thing to see that everyone is only dust. 

I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace this summer. Biggest waste of my time ever. The thing is interminably long, more than 1200 pages, most of which I didn’t even enjoy. Don’t ask why. I’m a sucker sometimes. 

But this thing I’m talking about today, at least Tolstoy is onto. He’s writing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and Russia’s supposedly heroic resistance. And in a time when history was still a story of supposedly great men – generals and kings that ruled and shaped history, Tolstoy calls BS on all that. He’s like neither Napoleon nor the tsar and generals of Russia had the kind of influence or power they think they did. They’re not all that special. 

And then Tolstoy says when you realize that great leaders don’t control history, you might wonder if God is controlling everything instead. And he says we can’t believe that either. History and human affairs are too random. They’re not consistently good or evil. They don’t follow a linear direction anywhere. God isn’t micromanaging and controlling all people and events either. 

Instead, history and life move forward through all our collective freedom and contingencies. We all have these unseen ways we’re shaped and hemmed in by our history, our culture, our limitations. We do stuff, usually not really understanding why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. And yet we also have the freedom to cooperate with the forces of our times or not, to follow our instincts or whatever other forces are acting upon us in our lives, or not.  

That’s what makes life and history, this weird and complicated and largely unseen set of forces acting upon us, and then whatever freedom and agency we have to choose how we’re going to respond. That’s all you’ve got, that’s all I’ve got. That’s all our representatives have, and it’s all someone like the president has either. 

We all have power and choices. But none of us is god, none of us is life-giving spirit. We’re flesh and dust. We’ve got to lower our expectations of everybody, especially when they’re promising us the moon. 

You and me, we’re dust. Our president, dust. All the people lining up to run against him, dust. We don’t need to fear them and we don’t need to buy into their hype. They don’t care about any of us as much as they say they do. They can’t do as much as they say they can. And they’re certainly not coming to save us. 

Lower your expectations, friends. Let’s remember what the scriptures teach, that it is the power of God and not politicians or anyone else, to give life and to save. 

You might have noticed, though, that in my little War and Peace bit, I mentioned that most of us don’t believe God’s power works in micromanaging and controlling every person and event in life. 

History, science, even our own experiences tell us that can’t be true. We can’t imagine that every day God micromanages the weather, tossing sunny days at some and hurricanes at others. We don’t want to believe that God predestined every tyrant and killer to do horrendous things to others. We like to think that we have some choices in the world ourselves, that all our thoughts and actions aren’t just hardwired into our fate by some giant programmer in the sky.

So if that’s so, if we’re all partly responding to stuff going on around us in the past and present, and partly making free choices too, how is it that God acts to bring life and to save? How can we look to God for help in our lives anywhere, including looking to God to help us in public life and politics? 

Well, this is kind of a big topic that theologians and philosophers have been working on for millenia, so why don’t I give it just a few minutes, OK?

The Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman likes to remind us that most of the Bible is poetry, not prose. It evokes more than it explains. It uses imagery and paradox and provocation to nudge us toward God and truth, rather than laying things out for us in linear arguments. 

I like to think this is because this is maybe what truth is like, and maybe what God is like – personal and directional, moving us toward goodness and beauty and wisdom, not a set of proofs or abstract arguments.

Anyway, the poetry of the prophets I think gives us a picture of how God saves, and a couple nudges for spiritually healthy ways to engage in politics in particular. 

One section from the prophet Micah, who famously tells us that what God wants of people in life is to “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.” A little earlier, he says this:

Micah 4:1-4 (CEB)

But in the days to come,

        the mountain of the Lord’s house

            will be the highest of the mountains;

        it will be lifted above the hills;

            peoples will stream to it.

2 Many nations will go and say:

    “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,

            to the house of Jacob’s God,

        so that he may teach us his ways

            and we may walk in God’s paths!”

Instruction will come from Zion

        and the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.

God will judge between the nations

        and settle disputes of mighty nations,

            which are far away.

They will beat their swords into iron plows

        and their spears into pruning tools.

Nation will not take up sword against nation;

        they will no longer learn how to make war.

All will sit underneath their own grapevines,

        under their own fig trees.

    There will be no one to terrify them;

        for the mouth of the Lord of heavenly forces has spoken.


Incredible poetry, isn’t it?

Now there’s a way to imagine this scene like God shows up out of the sky onto a mountain. And then that mountain gets so big, that everyone can see God there, and then people all around the earth make pilgrimage to that giant mountain to hear God. And then God is both really loud and really wise, so that all people learn wisdom and all international disputes are settled, and everyone commits to peace, so much peace that we all go back home and plant our own vineyard and orchards and sit and drink our wine and eat our figs in peace forevermore, amen!

And hey, if that’s how it’s going to happen, cool. I’ll take that. I can imagine worse things, right?

But it doesn’t really make sense if we take it super literally, does it? 

I mean, the passage is likely referring to the temple mount of Jerusalem, which isn’t a very big mountain at all and certainly isn’t going to grow so large that everyone in the world can see it. And even if it did, no matter how big it got, on a round earth, everyone seeing it would never be possible. And then there’s the question of how 7 or 8 billion people, or however many there are of us these days, would ever all get to the same mountain at the same time, and how in the world we’d hear God teach us if we could do that. 

It just doesn’t add up on these terms.

Which it was never meant to. It’s poetry. 

Here’s how I read it as a follower of Jesus.

I think God’s teacher, descended to earth, is Jesus. And I think how all people’s stream to the wisdom of God is through our attraction and devotion to the person and teaching of Jesus. We get to flock to God’s wisdom wherever we are, without even moving our feet a whole lot. 

From there, our devotion – dare I even say our obedience – to the teaching and person of Jesus will fill us with ever-increasing wisdom and inspire and equip us for ever-increasing peacemaking. 

And as we now know from the musical Hamilton, George Washington himself dreamed that in this country, amongst others as well, our commitments to peace would make it more likely that each of us could enjoy security and prosperity, that we could flourish in peace, each of us under our own vine, so to speak. 

It’s a beautiful hope and vision, isn’t it? 

And it’s one where God has God’s part, and we together have ours. 

God’s part is to speak wisdom and peace in the person of Jesus. God’s part is to be present in all places on earth, at all times, as an inspirational and attractional force of love to draw our imaginations and devotion toward wisdom and truth and peace. God is, in this sense, Almighty – present everywhere for healing and wisdom and love. 

But we have a part to play as well. We have the choice to stream toward God or not, to listen to God’s wisdom or not. We have the choice to beat our swords into ploughshares or not, to be people of peace or of violence. 

And more of us doing that more of the time will make a big difference in how much prosperity and peace and flourishing we all can experience.

Alright, this is super big picture. As a pastor, I’m trying to keep teaching about God and how God’s power and love work in life, and I’ll keep doing that. 

But what does all this mean for us as we follow impeachment inquiries and suffer through a more than year-long election season? Beyond lowering our expectations for every politician and political program, how can faith in the God the prophets dream about help us toward a more spiritually healthy engagement in politics?

I’ve got two thoughts, real quick.

They’re to 

  1. Engage in politics with clear eyes and a full heart. And to
  2. Be steadfast in hope and ruthless with systems, but generous with people.

Here’s what I mean. 

Engage in politics with clear eyes and a full heart. 

Our politicians don’t have the kind of powers we wish they did, or fear they do. And yet, they (like us) are people who are either streaming toward and responding to the wisdom of God or not. They are people who are becoming people of peace and flourishing, and promoting God’s peace and flourishing, or not.

And because of the power we’ve given them, because of the loudness of their voices and the leverage they have, there are stakes to this. So rather than hide from politics in the cocoons of our families or faith, rather than burrow down behind our privilege, I’d invite us to engage – but just to engage with clear eyes and a full heart.

Open your eyes. Be careful and wise. Don’t act like one person or party is always right. Don’t align yourself with a permanent friend or align yourself against a permanent enemy. One of the shameful aspects of American politics these past forty years is how fully Christians, for instance, or at least certain types of Christians have totally aligned their interests with the power of a single political party. It’s turned out really good for that party, but pretty awful for Christian witness. 

Which is the way things go when people pursue power rather than clear-eyed, full-hearted vision for the wisdom, peace, and flourishing of us all. My point isn’t to tell you to be Republican or Democrat or neither one. I have my opinions of what I want in our country, but that’s besides the point here. 

My point is to try to humbly learn from Jesus. Stream toward God. Never assume you’ve landed on truth or wisdom. Keep learning. Ask God to lead you toward more wisdom and more understanding of how to pursue peace and flourishing in your times, and then engage in politics and everything else as that leads you.

Don’t sell your permanent loyalty to anyone or anything but God. And pursue God’s greater good as that leads you. 

And as you engage in public life, be steadfast in hope and ruthless with systems, but generous with people. 

Public life matters. Our collective peace or violence matters. Safeguards to people’s security, prosperity, and flourishing matters – especially for people that most lack those safeguards right now. Wisdom and justice as they work out in public life matter. 

So keep your hope up, and where you encounter systems that stand against your hopes in God, ruthlessly oppose them. Use your money and vote and voice to pursue collective peace and flourishing. That’s what our health care justice team is trying to do – to pursue quality health care access and fair costs for all people in our city. Way to go, team!

But remember, just like the politicians, you too are dust. You’re human and not God. You are flesh and not spirit. You might not be right all the time. You probably aren’t. And you just might still have a few things to learn. 

So try to be generous with people that think and vote differently than you. Try to practice Jesus’ call to be more critical of yourself than others. Try to practice Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies and pray for those that oppose you.

We are not a unanimous country when it comes to our understandings of God or truth or politics or anything else. For most of us, that’s true of our families and workplaces as well, if not of our friends. That does not mean we’re all right. And that does not mean that we all have to be nice and accommodating all the time. Being a person of peace doesn’t just mean being silent or sweet when someone disagrees with you.

But it does mean that we can afford the dignity of respect to others – not to all their ideas, but to their voice and their personhood. And it does mean that we can seek the good in others, to seek our common humanity, even when we’re opposed. 

If you find yourself angry sometimes as we’re on the brink of political chaos, you’re probably just alive. That’s not a bad thing. But if you find that you’re the meanest, most judgy person in the room, or anything like that, I’d ask you to consider whether Jesus has a call to wisdom and peace for you, and not just your adversary.

I want to pray for us during these times, pray power and blessing in this regard, but first let me recap:

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

  1. Lower your expectations for powerful people.
  2. Engage in politics with clear eyes and a full heart.
  1. Be steadfast in hope and ruthless with systems, but generous with people.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

When you root for or against politicians, remember they are only dust. God renews and loves and advances the good through any and many people and forces that cooperate with God’s vision.

To Do the Impossible, You Have to See the Invisible

Reservoir Church has a partnerships team that donates ten percent of the giving to Reservoir to people and organizations doing beautiful things in the world, people and organizations we’re in relationship with as a community. Our partnerships team facilitates those relationships as well, by staying in touch with our partners, hosting them as they visit us, communicating with you about their work, and sometimes facilitating opportunities for you to visit their work as well.

One of our most significant partnerships is with the Indian public health and community development organization, Asha. Asha’s founder and director, Kiran Martin, and her husband, Asha’s associate director Freddy Martin, have become deep friends of Reservoir, and good friends of my family as well. My family have all been with them and their work in New Delhi, India, and a number of others from Reservoir have had the opportunity to learn and serve with them in Delhi’s slum communities as well. Just this past year, two leaders in our community, the psychiatrist Dr. John Peteet, and the social worker Amanda Proctor, have been able to consult with Asha on the expansion of their community mental health programming. And Reservoir members Jean Peteet and Peter Choo are both on the Board of Asha-USA, that raises funds and advocates for Asha’s work in the US. All to say, Reservoir really loves and appreciates and respects Asha. 

In a few minutes, I’m going to welcome Dr. Kiran to join us and share about what Asha is doing, and the beautiful ways she sees the Spirit of our good God working in Delhi. We’re calling this Asha Sunday, because you’re going to hear from Kiran, and after the service, there are going to be friends from Reservoir who’ve spent time with Asha out at a table in the dome art gallery. They’d be glad to talk more with you about Asha, how you learn about or give to their work, or even travel to India if you would like to learn and serve in person. We also have a video up on our facebook page about our partnership with Asha that you can take a look at.

But before I welcome Dr. Martin to share with us, I’m going to give kind of a mini-sermon on faith and power for our best work in the world. It’s a response of mine to the amazing work of Asha, and a way to try to connect it to the work that Jesus has for you to do in your jobs, in your families, and in your communities. 

First, let me pray for us.

One of the best mentors and leaders in my life was my boss I had in the years I was a teacher, the school’s principal, Bak Fun Wong. Bak Fun had been trained as a teacher in Hong Kong. After his immigration to the US, he rose up the ranks in the Boston Public Schools from instructional aid in an ESL classroom all the way to deputy superintendent, one of the more prominent Asian American leaders and educators in our city at the time.

And Bak Fun had big vision for the little school where I taught. When our school was just three or four years old, still adding a grade a year on our way to a 6-12 integrated middle and high school, Bak Fun started talking with me about all that we could do for the youth of Boston. 

His vision was really nothing less the disruption of how we do urban education in this country. In our country’s large cities, you may know, the wealthier families who remain in those cities tend to either opt out of public education entirely or opt in to selective schools, accessible through passing exams or other kinds of recruitment or screens. This is a huge class divide in the experience of America’s youth. And there’s a racial divide overlaid on that, and a divide between native-born and immigrant Americans, and sometimes a divide between so-called regularly developing and so-called learning disabled youth as well. 

So our urban public schools, especially as kids get older are poorer in both their funding and the privilege of the students’ families. They also educate more people of color, more English language learners, more students with learning disabilities, and more students in trauma. These youth are collected in a way in some schools more than others, and then we call those schools “bad schools”, rather than saying this is bad educational policy and practice we are all implicated in. 

Maybe you know this as a student or a parent or a citizen. Maybe you read about it last week in The Globe’s story published last week about Newton South and Brighton High Schools.

Bak Fun was like: we’re going to change this. We’re going to give a premier education to Boston Public School students who don’t go through all those filters, who don’t move out or test out or opt out into these spaces of privilege. We’re going to show that’s possible.

I would usually be very inspired in these conversations, like what can I do? What part can I play? 

But once in a while, I’d want to say: Bak Fun, have you seen one of our bathrooms? You know, one of our too small, too dirty, too foul-reeking bathrooms our kids use. Our school is a dump right now. Or I’d want to walk him to Mr. or Ms’ So-and-So’s classroom and say, Bak Fun, have you watched what happens in this room? We’ve got some amazing teachers, and you know, some less amazing ones. 

How in the world will your vision ever come to pass? 

And it’s then that Bak Fun would say with a gleam in his eye: To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible. 

To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible. 

Other people have said similar words, but they came to me through Bak Fun.

Partly this is what social workers call a strength based approach. You may see lots of problems, deficits that stand in the way of the health or success of a person or a community. I saw our school’s sub-par facilities and our uneven teaching. The public saw our students’ poverty and trauma and below average test scores. 

And most of us would tend to put all that together and think: not very much is possible here. 

But a strengths based approach with ourselves, with others, with our work, with communities, always asks first: what strengths are here? What obvious, visible strengths? What hidden, and so at least to some, invisible strengths, are there to work with? 

Bak Fun saw the cultural wealth of our school’s diversity. He saw the resilience of our kids and their families. He saw the rich economic and educational capital of the city of Boston, and knew there were resources we could draw on there. 

And Bak Fun believed that every child is made by God, and possesses dignity, talent, and potential that mirrors the glory of their unseen Maker. 

To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible. 

This is a strengths based approach to life and work, and it’s also a way to think about and practice the meaning of faith.

The scriptures teach:

Hebrews 11:1 (CEB)

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.

How can you guarantee your hopes? And how can you prove the existence or the goodness of God? 

Well, in one sense, you can’t. You can’t guarantee the future. And you can’t prove the invisible.

And yet, in another sense, trust makes hope real. And faith brings life to the invisible, and so proves it to us. 

I think Bak Fun saw the love and support in the school culture he was promoting, and some of the other good things happening beneath the surface of our school, and thought, this is the reality of what we hope for. 

I know Bak Fun believed in an impossibly good and just God of love. And Bak Fun, and many on our team, trusted that that good God inspires and cooperates in our endeavors to do what is good and just. And that was proof of what we couldn’t yet see.

Sometimes faith and hope, vision, is inspiring. And sometimes it is frustrating. Because it’s not here yet. 

I was part of a team of teacher leaders who helped Bak Fun run our school, and implement growth and change. We’d develop curriculum and practices, we’d foster collaboration among our teachers and staff, we’d keep order and discipline and support for our students. We’d try to bridge the gap between our reality today and Bak Fun’s hopes for tomorrow.

And sometimes I’d want to say to him: Bak Fun, to do what’s possible, you need to see what’s visible. 

Get your head out of the clouds. We’re not there yet. 

And that was fair. Finding small, possible remedies for real, daily problems is important work.  And finding contentment and peace with our not so great present realities is a big part of a good life, a faithful life. And there are spiritual tools for that too.

But if we only saw what was possible, that’s all we would ever have. 

To see the invisible strengths in ourselves, our friends, our family, our neighbors, our workplace, our communities is to nourish hope in what we can still become. 

And to trust God is with us, and that the nature of our invisible God is steadfast kindness, justice, and love is to give us a compass for our efforts, fuel for our gritty perseverance, and hope to make us strong and bold and even full of joy.

To do the impossible, we have to see the invisible. 

Jesus taught about this too. One story I preached on this past Christmas:

Mark 4:30-32 (CEB)

He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? 31 Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; 32 but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

Seeds are like this. Some of them like mustard seeds are tiny and hard. They look like waste. And yet within them is this invisible strength – the chemistry and properties of life, that with soil and sun and water and air become beautiful, fruitful trees of life. Themselves living things, and producers of life, and shelters of life – participants in healthy, fruitful, protective, nourishing ecosystems. 

Jesus says God’s invisible presence on earth is like this. Unseen, or not looking like much, easy to neglect or throw away or underestimate. 

The Kingdom of God is like that crappy, failing school you won’t send your kids to. With time and care and hope and skill and faith, God will make that the most beautiful of schools – producing leaders and citizens and caregivers we all need.

The Kingdom of God is like that autistic child you don’t understand. Why doesn’t he look at you or talk? Why is her thinking rigid or anxious? What you can’t see is that God made this child beautiful. There is perspective and brains and ability to be praised and cultivated that with time and care and hope and skill and faith, God will make to the most fruitful of people – a parent, a writer, a scientist, a programmer that will bless our world with their contributions.

The Kingdom of God is like a cholera-infested slum community in Northern India. It’s that crowded cluster of tenements off the roadside, where trash is sorted, where children work, where parents’ hopes and dreams and bodies die. 

A young Indian pediatrician just out of medical school saw such a community through the eyes of faith and hope and love, and she set up a mobile clinic. That clinic became a public health center. Which became a women’s group and a children’s group. Which with time and care and hope and skill and faith became a series of centers of education, health care, and empowerment throughout the slums of Delhi. 

Where most people saw outcasts, Dr. Kiran saw people made in the image of God that could be empowered to develop a healthy community. Where others saw communities you would never let your kids enter, Dr. Kiran saw loving neighborhoods where her own daughters made friends and played – as now my own children have had the blessing of doing so. And where their country and class saw kids who would become beggars and laborers, Asha has seen children who with time and care and skill and hope and faith, can gain entrance to the most elite universities, the most promising careers, and who can break multi-generational patterns of poverty in their communities. 

To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible.

Kiran and Asha encourage me to do the same – in my prayers, in my parenting, in my friendships, in my work. And they do the impossible in accordance with their values of dignity, empowerment, justice, non violence, compassion, gratitude, generosity, optimism, joy, simplicity, and the power of touch. These 11 Asha values are an embodiment of the love of Jesus, they are a way of life I’m learning from Asha. 

And I’d like to you to learn from them as well. 

To share more, I welcome Dr. Kiran Martin to us. 

To learn more:

  1. Speak to someone about Asha at the dome table. 
  2. Give to the work of Asha, through your giving to Reservoir or at
  3. Contact steve@reservoirchurch about travelling to India with an Asha team.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Cultivate your vision of the invisible in yourself, your people, and your work.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Choose one Asha value and seek to make it a way of life in all you do this week. (dignity, empowerment, justice, non violence, compassion, gratitude, generosity, optimism, joy, simplicity, and the power of touch)

On the Brink of Not Much…Not Yet…

Both of my graduations were anticlimactic. College graduation, I got the cap and gown, but the diploma was just a cover. I wasn’t getting the real diploma, yet. As the end of my 4th year in undergrad was coming to a close, when everyone else was interviewing, landing a job, planning to move, I was graduating late because I didn’t have enough credits. In high school, it was easy to keep up and I wasn’t the smartest but still got A’s and B’s without trying too hard. SAT scores were decent enough to get into UCLA. Transition to college was a bit more difficult for me, not just the academic part but socially, emotionally I wasn’t able to balance out everything too well. Each semester I was overloaded and ended up dropping a class here and there. Which is how I ended up at my graduation with about 20 units short and was only “walking”. Everyone was asking each other, “what are you doing after graduation?” Oh, an internship at Deloitte. Grad school at USC. An oversees program with Peacecorp or some other exciting cool gig. It seemed like everyone else was on the Brink of everything, except me. After I “walked” my graduation, I had to take 3 classes in Session A of summer school and 3 classes in Session C, to finish all my classes by the end of summer. 

My grad school graduation also had a damper. After you graduate from seminary, you received a masters in divinity, because apparently you’ve mastered the divine (lol), and then in my little circle of the world, in the denomination of Presbyterians, the order was that you are then “called” by a church and that’s how you get ordained. I, happened to be working at a church that’s of another denomination and didn’t qualify for ordination right then. Folks would ask each other, “where you getting ordained?”. While others were becoming solo pastors at a church or becoming chaplains at a hospital, I had to explain about working at a church that’s not Presbyterian and the whole thing. 

Churches follow the season of the new school year, so it’s a new ministry year for us, and as we kick this time off, we’re doing a sermon series called, On the Brink of Everything, taken from a book by Parker Palmer. The series isn’t particularly inspired from the book, as our head pastor Steve kicked off the series last week talking about being overwhelmed in the midst of being on the brink of every kinds of things, whereas Palmer’s book is mainly about aging and reaching end of life. Palmer got the title actually from a reflection written by a mom as she watched her toddler on the brink of discovery and seeing the world with wonder. And yes, as I see my 10 month old daughter, omg she on the brink of swallowing cardboard, falling head first on a sharp toy, or knocking down any liquid nearby. So, whether we’re 10 months old, or very old, or anything in between really, this is a season for many of us, we’re on the brink of change, launching, possibility. And we just loved the title, kinda poetic, on the brink, of everything! 

But for me, there’s this thing about it, that’s a bit anticlimactic. On the Brink of… not much… not yet…. Not me…. And it feels like everyone around me is on the brink of stuff. They are working on some new cool project. They are starting a company. Their company’s about to go public for ridiculous amounts of money. I’m like, dude, we were in same small group a few years ago! But me, yes, I have recently had many changes, I moved here almost 2 years ago, had a baby. That’s a lot of change. But then like, since then it’s been, diapers, emails, uh trying to eat better, gym, work, ya know. Same ol, same ol. Every weekend we’re like, so….. Uh library? Costo? Burlington mall? Yeah, I know my life might look fabulous on Instagram, but that’s just it. It looks like everyone’s on the brink of discovery and excitement, but there’s this mundane regularness of life that we don’t see. What do we do with this time, the not much of nothing not yet? That’s what I want to talk about today. 

Even for Jesus, the Bible stories about him are his facebook feeds, the highlights, that’s captured and saved forever, but there’s all these early years of his life that we have no record of. Because he was probably doing not much, not yet. The only record we have is when he was 12 years old, when his parents lost him in the temple. Let me read it for us. 

Luke 2:41-52 (NIV)

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

They traveled on for a day? What were you doing for a day without your son you called Emmanuel, Mary and Joseph? He was literally not with you.  Rough childhood. And Jesus, sounds like he was a kind of a problem child, running away and not letting his parents know where he was?! His mom’s like, “why have you treated us like this?” Totally what my mom would say to me, “why would you do this to me?” and I’m like, I didn’t do it to you, you’re the mom! But I digress…. A twelve year old, after 3 days?! WHAT? Can you imagine? And he talks back too. “Why were you searching for me?” And the kid is weird, saying things they didn’t understand. I mean what if your middle schooler, when you’re like, “where you been?” says to you, “Don’t you know that I had to follow the voice of the one who calls me?” You’d be worried. I mean, you bring them to church but you don’t want them to be THAT religious. The writer wrapped it up well, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” But man, you don’t know that when all you see is him acting like this! 

It was a time of growth. A time of becoming. A time of not much…. Not yet. 

They call it the gap years. Jesus took a gap year! Years, at that! Because there was nothing extra special about that time probably. The only other reference we have to his backstory is when Jesus was seen doing miracles later, someone was like, “wait isn’t this the carpenter guy from that one town?” When you make it big, someone always does this. And to that, Jesus responded, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home”. So, Jesus was probably a carpenter. Building furniture, maybe houses, a contractor. Not particularly related to a charismatic spiritual leader. 

Even when Jesus finally performed his first miracle, it felt as though it was not time yet. In John 2, it says, 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” and Jesus replies “Woman, why do you involve me?” “My hour has not yet come.”

Do you feel like your hour has not yet come? Or not even sure if it’ll ever come. Maybe some of us feel like we’re just on hold. In this liminal space between doing something meaningful or great, or it doesn’t even have to be great, just right. And in the mean time, it feels as though you are stuck. Maybe you’ve been feeling like you’re stuck at a job, you’ve been interviewing and interviewing but nothing’s been happening. Or you’ve had this idea in your mind, and tried to have it become something, but it just keeps hitting a wall after another. Or maybe it’s a season marked by just trying to get by. Just sustaining. Just the day to day. And it feels, mundane. Like you’ve been waiting. Wondering how long this season is going to be. 

Those times after both of my graduations were also times of insecurity and uncertainty. I wasn’t sure who I was, or who I was supposed to be. It felt like I was put on hold. I knew I was capable of things. Sometimes it felt like people didn’t see me. Or recognize my talents. Like I wasn’t even worth being given a chance. There were times at my job when I was moving chairs, coordinating events on emails, and setting up the projector that would not cooperate, I felt frustrated that this is all I amounted to after grad school. Not that I was above those things, those tasks are actually some of the meat work of ministry and I still do them, but I wasn’t given a chance to preach, or teach a class, or lead a group on a topic that I was passionate about. 

I remember one night during those times, I had a sleepover with my 2 bestfriends. Yes, I was like mid twenties having sleepovers where you turn off the lights, lay down and talk to each other in the dark. It was one of those conversations with your bestfriends that just flowed, we were listening, and present, completely still, all in the dark, blankly staring into the ceiling. And we were talking about our lives, post college graduation. And I had this image in my head that just popped up. I wasn’t sure what it was but I just shared it with them. There was this small pink plastic stool with like cheezy flowers on it, like the ones you see at chinese markets. And on top of it was a bowl, an ordinary bowl. The bowl was full of water just about to overflow, and on it was a drip, drip, drip, with each drip, the bowl at the brink of overflowing but not yet. I shared that image and one of my friends said, I can’t remember exactly but something along the lines of, it’s been filling up, slowly, veeeeery slowly, but it’s filling up. And I just filled up with tears in my eyes and my heart swelled up with this recognition, of knowing and feeling exactly what she was talking about. My ordinary, some would even say pretty ghetto life, just makeshift stool and put a bowl on it, ya know nothing fancy, it’s not a chalice on a tiered stand or nothing, but God was filling me up, drip by drip. And I could picture the bowl overflowing, running down the pink plastic stool and spreading all over the floor. It was like a glimpse of the future. When each day felt like only a drip, insignificant, small drips. 

I’ve had this other image, during the times after my seminary graduation. When I knew I wasn’t ready to be killing it. There was this sense of daily grind. Where I was building myself up, and just sharpening knife. At the risk of being just streotypical Asian, I’m about to drop a bunch of asian images here but, I imagined like a samuri, one who learns how to just sharpen his sword. Like a Rocky moment, getting up super early in the morning, in the darkness of dawn covered in morning mist fog, you just faintly see the figure of a samuri kneeling and the only sound you hear, sheek sheek sheek, sharpening his sowrd. Until one day it comes, I don’t know the enemy or whatever, and he just goes, shook shook shook, and kills. 

I’ve kneeled and grinded, next to my dad growing up. More asian stuff coming at ya, while he would write caligraphy, I would sit next to him with a black block in my hand, and you pour a little bit of water on this heavy black stone brick, that literally had a big dragon engraved on it as the lid, and you would grind the block to make ink. And as you do it, you don’t just grind and make ink, you give your focus, your intention, your chi, maybe you’ve heard it I think the chinese call it, in korean it’s called gi, your energy. That is how you make ink. And before you can freely move your brush on about, you first grind the block with you gi. You know like, wax on, wax off, okay, I’m done with the asian imageries. 

We were just on a church-wide retreat together this weekend, friday to Saturday and the theme was mending, with a speaker who literally sewed things together. We were told to bring holey socks. And the thing about sewing things together for me is, man I just don’t got time for it. I remember our sheets started to get these little holes in them and we had literally like just bought them so not wanting it to rip more, my husband was like, can you sew these up? I was like, PSH, uh okay, sure, let me just bust out my sewing kit and put a tiny thread into a tiny hole and do some sewing in my spare time like a proper wife. Just kidding. I don’t talk like that to my husband lol…. I was like, uh yeah sure, I’ll try. But I was thinking, when am I going to have time to do that? 

I did it one day and honestly, it felt so good. It felt like REALLY good. To slow down, just look down and focus on your hands, fixing something physically. I was present. And my husband was pretty happy too. 

Looking back, the timing of things actually were perfect. During those times were times I had the space and time to process some important things in my life. It was during those times that I had the energy to put myself together, to grief, to be angry, to heal and process some of the traumas I’ve experienced in my life. And I’m grateful for it because, if I was preaching during that time, well I would’ve been horrible at it because I was too deep in my own stuff. They were times of slowing down, places I had to weave, thread, reinforce, protect, and mend for me. 

When Jesus finally stepped into his true calling of preaching, healing, performing miracles and eventually dying for what he did, he continued this habit of withdrawing himself from the spotlight and connecting with the Father. It says, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” in Luke 5:16. And in Mark 1:35, Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” 

In between greatness and living out his fullest life, he would, ground himself, go back to the source where he got his energy. When things would happen that was too much, 

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Matt 14:13. 

I actually think this is the brilliance and the magic of Jesus. He was busy. he was fighting the systemic powers of his time. He was able to bring heaven on earth through his very words and his hands, because he would whisper to his Maker and clasped his hands in prayer. Where did he get his power to do what he did? Through seasons of some negative space in his life, where he went on walks by himself. He was constantly stepping away, ducking out, and sneaking off to connect with the One. He claimed to be one with God. And that’s, I believe the secret to Jesus, showing us how to be one with the divine, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me. Says in John 17:22. I quote these verses, not because they are important because they are in the Bible, but for us to get glimpses of who Jesus was like and why he’s such a big deal. What made him tick. What made him, him. What makes Jesus so compelling is actually counterintuitive to today’s culture of being a big deal and showing the world who you are. He did the opposite. He went down. Lower than anyone expected him to. Unto the depths of shame, and blame, and death. There, from there he rose. That is the way Jesus shows us, that the way down is the way up. When you think not much is happening, that’s the place of incubation and rebirth. 

You know, it seems as though everyone else is achieving greatness, putting themselves out there, making things happen. And like the overused cheesy imagery of a caterpillar, this gross crawling thingy cacoons itself in the darkness. And maybe that’s you, who’s been in a season of darkness. A season of what it feels like a dull chronic pain. A season that feels like God is doing not much…. Not yet… and you’ve been asking, “how long, oh Lord.” If you find yourself there, take heart. God meets you there in the dark, and is sharpening your sword, is grinding your rock, is dripping every blessing and goodness onto you, that you may be filled up and overflow. May that be true for us, our community and the world. 

As we trust God to show up in those places, we can freely allow ourselves to slow down to really get in touch with who we are. And maybe this season that feels like a lull, like a moment of stagnation, is maybe a time of sustenance. We all need such season. Especially if we want to be ready for greatness. We have to be filled up in order to overflow and give and serve those around us. The freedom that comes at the moment of releasing your truest potential, it only comes from a time and place of daily discipline. 

Let me wrap up. Here’s my invitation for life flourshing in a season that may be on the brink of not much, not yet. It’s in the program for you. 

Don’t look around to what others are doing. Look up and dream big. Look down and do the daily small stuff. You do you. Every day. Plug away. 

And a Spiritual Practice to sustain you through this season. 

Find time in your life for refueling your energy, connecting with the divine. Connect with yourself, in solitude. 

Just as Jesus did. Where he got his power, from the source that everflows to nourish you. To be grounded in the abundant love of God that tells you that it’s not what you do or achieve, but here in the stillness of, even in the midst not much, not yet, I love you. You’re beloved. There is your brink of everything. 


Some Great Options for When We’re Overwhelmed

Recently I was with a number of colleagues who all had graduate student interns, and one of them a little older than me asked about how we can help our interns be more resilient and dependable. Because, he suggested, it seems this generation gets overwhelmed in ways that his didn’t.

As you can hear, his question was equal parts compassion and condescension. Personally, I think he only had his point half right. I do think people are more overwhelmed today than we used to be. A lot of us find life hard, exhausting. But I don’t think it’s just a particular generation. I think it’s all of us. 

I get overwhelmed a lot. Most people I know do. We live in overwhelming times. 

There are probably a lot of factors in this, but one of them has got to be the pace of change we’re experiencing.

I used to be a high school principal. And I used to go to an every-other-month meeting of high school principals. This meeting – paid for by our school districts – was hosted by a therapist, and it kind of was group therapy for high school principals. We would all drive to this obscure development somewhere off 128, we’d stroll into a meeting room on the first floor of a nondescript office building. And then we’d take our armor off, and talk about how hard the work was.

The therapist who hosted these gatherings would look at us and say: Damn straight, it is. This guy was an expert in change, school change in particular, and how hard change was. He’d remind us that expectations were higher for us than they ever had been. Principals these days are expected to heal the sick and raise the dead, he’d say, but they haven’t given you any more tools to do that, have they?

He’d remind us that schools these days – like so many other institutions – say they crave change. Schools are obsessed with continual, simultaneous, multiple improvements. Everything always getting better, all at once. And yet by nature, people hate change. It’s hard. We don’t know what we’re doing. We usually don’t succeed. But in the process of trying to change, we’re always losing something we also want to hold onto. 

This guy didn’t give us a lot of advice, but he did affirm our sense that we had these overwhelming jobs, in overwhelming times. 

Another educator named Parker Palmer wrote a book recently that’s sort of about this. The book’s called On the Brink of Everything. It’s a little collection of poems and essays.

Partly it’s about dying. Palmer is 80 years old, wrapping up a long and fruitful career, and thinking more about the end of his life in front of him. And aging and death certainly can overwhelm. There’s so much change; there can be so much fear of what’s ahead and loss of what’s behind. 

But the book is it’s not just about aging and death, but really about all kinds of change and about the possibilities that hide in the middle of it. 

The title has two things going on. There’s the phrase, “on the brink” which usually indicates something really bad is straight ahead. On the brink of war. On the brink of disaster.  And yet it’s also taken from a poem a mother wrote about her toddler, who always seemed on the brink of everything – some new development or discovery always just ahead, caught up as toddlers olds are, in a wide-eyed kaleidoscope of ever unfolding wonder. 

We feel like all of this is true for so many of us in America, in 2019. Surrounded by infinite possibility and unending wonder, but also overwhelmed by all that’s happening, and overwhelmed by change. 

The next few weeks, we’ll make this our theme. We’ll dig around this in a series we’re calling On the Brink of Everything. And today I’ll start us off with some good options for the many times when we’re overwhelmed.

Let’s join the first followers of Jesus on the weekend after his death, when they were overwhelmed themselves. We’ll take this passage in three sections – starting with the first two verses. 

John 20:19-31 (CEB)

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Here they are: their teacher, their role model has been arrested, tortured, and executed. Their apprenticeship, which took them out of their hometowns, away from their jobs, has suddenly ended. They have no livelihood, they’re afraid for their safety, and they’ve lost what they’ve spent years investing in. 

They’re overwhelmed. They’ve been through trauma. And if you know a little history, you can just scratch the surface of their particular trauma and unearth the overwhelming nature of the times they lived in. Early first century Judea was a time and place of immense, overwhelming change and public trauma. 

They’d been colonized by Rome, who had cemented their rule through a campaign of terror – imprisoning, in some cases crucifying their political opponents. The Roman era also brought changes in culture, technology, economics, and politics that were overwhelming. Rural Judeans like these disciples faced immense tax burdens and challenges to their wages and job conditions. And to have loved and served and apprenticed under a crucified teacher was to wonder if you too were doomed to a threatened life as a marginalized outsider. 

So it’s no surprise the disciples were hiding behind locked doors.

I heard a podcast recently in which someone was commenting on the American experience in the 21st century – the immense technological and political and economic changes and stresses we’ve experienced. Think about it, in just 18 years,  9/11, the War on Terror, the great recession, the rise of social media, the gig economy, Bush, Obama, Trump, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, climate change, the war on immigrants, Black Lives Matter, Me Too. So much change. So much reckoning. So much exposure and surfacing of things that for some had been long hidden. So much stress and pain exposed. And so whether these things speak to our personal experiences in the world or not, we’re all living in these rapidly unfolding times of public trauma. 

“On the brink” of so much, all the time. And when we’re on the brink, when we’re experiencing trauma or even just rapid change, we get overwhelmed, and for many of us, our default responses are often going to be numbness, fear, or anger. 

I know when I get overwhelmed – big ways like when I was crashing two years ago, or ordinary ways like when stress piles up – I freeze. If I can notice it, I’m afraid. But it’s not fun to feel afraid or to admit fear so that can pretty quickly slide to anger or numbness, lashing out at someone to blame, or avoiding the fear through distraction. 

It’s not just me. I’ve noticed there are huge spiritual and economic forces that are invested in keeping us angry, afraid, and numb. 

This summer, I heard a news report about global birthrates being projected to decline a bit, and I thought: that’s awesome. My whole life, people have been worrying about the economic and climate and societal consequences to overpopulation. I thought I was going to hear a rare good news report in public media. Look, it’s getting better. But immediately, the person on the news said: experts worry that a growing percentage of elderly residents will strain economies and young workers. This too should make us all afraid. 

I was like really, this thing that for so many people if it didn’t happen, made them afraid. Now that it is happening, that’s bad news too? Fear sells. We know from social media that anger sells too. Headlines and stories that make us angry or afraid get our attention, so lots of people are spending lots of time and money thinking of ways to make you and me scared and angry. 

And then other people and companies are spending time and money trying to sell us products that we can buy to distract us from all that fear and anger. 

Vicious cycle here – advertisers keeping our attention, politicians getting our loyalty and money when we’re angry and afraid. And then corporations making money off of us when we buy their products or sell them our attention, while we’re numbing out from all that fear and anger. As if we need any help getting overwhelmed, or staying numb, angry, and afraid. 

So I want to spend a few short minutes noticing what can happen to us when we’re overwhelmed and when we’re numb, or afraid, or angry. And just start to explore some better options God can lead us into. 

Back to our numbed out disciples for a moment. We know they’re behind locked doors. I think in the 21st century version of their post-crucifixion hangover, they’re also day drinking, or maybe just each scrolling instagram on their phones. 

They’re disengaged, and why wouldn’t they be? Their lives are overwhelming. So Jesus comes by to engage with them. He surprises them – hey, I’m back. He shows up in person at their door. Which these days, even if we don’t think someone’s dead, is kind of startling when it happens. And he comforts them – he offers them peace. 

There was this other passage I almost preached from today, from the Bible’s narrative of the ancient kings of Israel. In it, Assyria was about to conquer the kingdom of Judah. Their army shows up outside the city walls, and the Judean emissaries say: Negotiate with us in your language of Aramaic, not our language of Hebrew, because we can speak your language. But really, they don’t want their countrymen to be able to understand the negotiations and freak out.

But the Assyrian conquerors say, that’s OK, we’ll use your language. And they yell out, why shouldn’t we speak Hebrew, because those people on the walls behind you are also going to have to eat their own excrement and drink their own piss when we lay siege to your city. Just like you. So they oughta know. 

It’s terrifying, and it’s overwhelming. So the people on the walls sit there in absolute silence. They’re frozen, totally numb. 

What keeps them from disengaging, checking out and distracting themselves is partly lack of options. They could have got drunk, but they didn’t have iphones or youtube or anything. It was partly urgency – this conquering army wasn’t going anywhere. But it was partly this old ritual of tearing your clothes, and putting ashes on your head, when you were overwhelmed and had nothing else to do. 

They had this physical ritual to do in their grief, which helped them stop and notice their feelings. Helped them physically express their underlying emotion, rather than rush past it. And this ritual – this tearing of the clothes, putting ashes on their heads in grief, is for them the precursor to a breakthrough. Just engaging their reality eventually gives birth to hope and action. 

They start just by staying engaged, by feeling what they’ve got to feel. 

Y’all know that when we’re overwhelmed, a lot of us tend to numb out. We all have our own ways – some eat, some drink, some dig deep into the netflix archives, some watch porn, some just endlessly occupy ourselves with our phones. Whatever it is, we engage in these behaviors that distract us from experiences and feelings that threaten us. 

But that kind of shutting down isn’t something we can do selectively. When we avoid our hard experiences and feelings, we do that with all of them. So we’re less relationally and emotionally available, period. A lot of us, and I’ve got to say, a lot of us men in particular, spend a lot of our lives this way, shut down. Which is this big loss, for us and for the people we know. And for all the good we can do in the world when we stay engaged.  

The way out starts the same way as it did for the ancients, the same way it did for Jesus’ students too – with engaging again in life, with attending to what we’re feeling and experiencing. 

I noticed myself getting overwhelmed here and there this summer and looking for distraction. This is why I’ve started back recently with a daily practice of an old Jesuit prayer called the Examine, where once or twice a day, you stop for a few minutes, and notice the good and bad, the life-giving and the life-sucking, things you’re experiencing, and how those make you feel. It’s a way to stay engaged, a way to stay alive. And staying awake, alive in this way, gives us a shot at good, engaged living in the world. It gives us a shot at hope. It gives us a short at working with the materials we’ve got. Asking what we think, noticing what we feel, when we’re overwhelmed.

From there, Jesus can give us ways to be less afraid too. 

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

 And then skipping ahead a few lines: 

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

I love that right when Jesus says, Peace be with you, he gives his friends something to do. Not something random, not scurrying about keeping busy as its own way of numbing out, but a purposeful way to participate in the good future God is seeing into being.

This seems to be one of the core functions of the Spirit of God in the world, to persuade us that the future doesn’t need to be as bleak as we think it is. Here it looks like Jesus telling his friends – don’t be afraid, have peace. Trust that I’m with you and up to something good, so you can have life. 

And then rather than just hoping it’ll be so, Jesus gives his friends a way to participate in that hopeful future. As I’ve been sent, I’m sending you. Participate in people’s experience of God’s gracious, merciful, forgiving, loving ways in the world. 

I find this turn to faith and hope-filled action exceedingly powerful when I’m overwhelmed. In addition to my examen, to stop and ask: can I trust that God is up to something good in my times, that God is engaged in a hopeful future for me and for the people and places I care about?

When I don’t have this hope, I freeze. I stagnate. I try to spin plates at best, and just keep things going. But when I have hope, I actually get energy and vision for real action. 

A lot of the time, this action our hope leads us into takes the form of preservation or innovation – holding on to something good we could lose in times of rapid change, or embracing and seeing into being something new ahead of us that we haven’t seen before. 

I don’t find being a pastor nearly as overwhelming as running a high school. This is much better. But sometimes, I still get overwhelmed. I’ll wonder if the things we’re trying to do as a church – gather people in rich community, connect people with a powerful and healthy experience of God’s love, inspire and empower joyful lives of justice and mercy and connection – I can fear that we don’t know how to do these things, or that churches are seeming more irrelevant to these things for so many people. I can wonder like this and freeze a little. 

But then when I stay with those feelings and ask God for hope and faith, I find myself led into particular acts of preservation and innovation. I remember that in my case, that there are some very old things that pastors and churches have done that I want to keep doing and make sure we don’t stop doing. Or I discover there are some new and innovative things we can do which might be a gift. 

I find that in the circumstances and times when I most wonder: what if I’m on the brink of a disaster, that in those times, God is on the brink too. But God seems not to be on the brink of disaster, but more like the toddler, God seems always on the brink of something exciting, something old or something new, but always something wonderful. 

Jesus really can empower us to stay engaged when it’s easy to go numb, and toward faith and hope-filled action when we’re afraid, and also to love, even when we’re gripped by anger. 

In the context of today’s passage in first century Judea, there was a growing, seething anger against Rome and against the Jewish elite that cooperated with them. That anger would within a generation find expression in mass, armed resistance to Rome, a failed revolt which would yield enormous suffering. 

I hear this anger a little bit in Jesus’ friend Thomas.

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I hear in Thomas the anger of loss – things didn’t work out as they should have, and that makes me angry. I hear in Thomas the anger of being left out. You may have seen Jesus, but he didn’t come my way. I hear in Thomas the anger of having been lied to before, having heard false comfort and false promise that he is done falling for. And I hear in Thomas the anger of enough disappointment and diminishment that he can’t trust hope. 

Anger can be a gift, an awakening to truth. In fact, all three of these places we go to when we’re overwhelmed – numbness, fear, anger – they are all gifts. They developed not just in humans but in all animals for protective, healthy reasons. Numbness, fear, and anger at the right times keep us alive, they protect us, they’re adaptive responses to danger. 

But they’re also all awful as unending, permanent states of being. Uninterrupted numbness, fear, or anger wreck our health and our well-being. They keep us reactive to other people’s stories instead of living out ours. As permanent states of being, they ruin our relationships and society, and they shrink and diminish everyone, not least ourselves.

If you haven’t yet seen the Hannah Gadsby stand-up special that dropped on Netflix last year, you should – for a lot of reasons. But one of them is this powerful way a professional comic says comedy isn’t good enough for our traumatic times. We need to tell whole stories, the parts that make us angry, not just the parts that make us laugh. But then she says that anger isn’t good enough either – anger is a way to somewhere, but it is not a resting place. We need more than chronic anger – we need connection.  

I’ve had a lot in public life in recent years that’s made me angry. I’m sure you have to. I’ve spent more time at the state house, more time at the local jail, more time connecting with my elected representatives these past three years than in the previous thirty combined. Partly it’s been opportunity as a pastor, but parlty, anger’s given me a call to action. 

But when this has gone well, and when it’s felt sustainable, it’s not been because I have something or someone to stand against in anger. It’s been because that anger has clarified for me: who is that I want to love? How do I love myself or others enough to act to preserve and protect what I love? 

I’m working as an organizer these days, as is Pastor Lydia, on a bill that will give all eligible Massachusetts residents, including undocumented immigrants access to drivers’ licenses. Because I’m angry at the diminishment and scapegoating of immigrants in our times. I’m angry that people who pay taxes and contribute in a hundred other ways to flourishing communities have to live in fear that when they’re picking up their kids from school or going to work to pay their bills, they might end up through a stroke of bad luck getting deported, rippint their family apart. 

But that anger by itself doesn’t give me the energy it takes for effective, sustainable action. I’ve seen some angry activists say and do some really self-defeating things. But when I remember who it is I want to love and protect, that love gives me so much more than the anger alone. That love gives me stamina and motivation that helps me engage more consistently, more skillfully, more generously. I’m trying to notice and respect my anger in these times we live in – but I’m trying welcome love into me when I’m angry too, and to let that love give me power to love in my anger too. 

When the ancient Israelites stood behind their wall, being threatened by Assyrian warriors that they’d have to eat their own excrement, they looked at one another, and they realized this wasn’t about standing against an enemy. It was about standing in solidarity with one another, about protecting their beloved community, and that grew their faith, that gave them courage.

In that principals’ group I told you about, where we faced the stresses of our overwhelming jobs, for the most part, we had no solutions for one another. But we had a place to tell our stories and be heard and understood. And that empathy and connection gave us power. It helped us act out of creative love, not be reactive all the time. 

When Thomas the disciple had had enough, I love that Jesus wasn’t angry back at him. Jesus certainly didn’t shame or blame Thomas for his doubt or fear or anger – he got it. It probably all made sense to Jesus. What Jesus did do was say to Thomas, “Touch me.” I’m here. You’re not alone. 

God is this for us as well, an ever-present Spirit of love, near to us, maybe especially when we’re overwhelmed. God is eager to help you stay engaged, powerful and hopeful to turn us from fear to hope, and kind and good enough to accompany our anger with love. 

Let me sum up my invitations today, and then pray for us that we’ll know God’s power and help for this.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

When overwhelmed by change, consider if there is opportunity for preservation or innovation.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

When numb, ask what you feel. When afraid, ask how you can trust and hope. When angry, ask who you can love.