There is Enough

We’ve got a lot going on today so I’m going to get right into it here with some words from Jesus.  We are finishing up our spring prophetic living series. Next week, and for all 11 weeks of summer at Reservoir, our pastoral team will speak at our 10:30 services as we’re guided by the Bible texts of the day. Rather than choosing those texts as part of a series, we’ll draw them from a shared Bible reading plan called the lectionary, that churches in many traditions use. We keep a daily version of this Bible reading plan on our website, where it’s called Read the Bible Together, and we’ll be using the Sunday weekly version of that calendar this summer, just like we did last year.

But today we’re wrapping up these 8 weeks we’ve called Prophetic Living – living as if our best hopes in God are timely and true. We’ve drawn from a smattering of the wisdom of the ancient Hebrew prophets in our Bible’s Old Testament, and a bit from Jesus when he’s functioning as a prophet too. Both Christianity and Islam esteem Jesus as a truth teller; I think the teaching of Jesus holds pretty broad respect in non-religious American culture at large as well. Although most Americans, just like most Muslims and just like most Christians, haven’t really grappled a lot with the content of the teaching of Jesus.

Jesus’ words are on the one hand so simple, and at the same time so deep they’re kind of inscrutable. Jesus tells these stories about farming and fish and water and widows that are earthy and grounded and at the same time seem to nudge us toward a life that impossible – impossibly hard, impossibly beautiful, impossibly provocative, impossibly good. I come in and out of passion and interest with most religious things, but I think I will never tire of the words of Jesus.

Let me share a few of them right now. In Luke’s good news, Jesus tells this little story. Jesus says:

15 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17 He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18 Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19 I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”

-Luke 12:15-21 (CEB)

Jesus, what a story you tell, Jesus. It’s funny. This guy is so excited, so pleased with his own good luck and clever ideas. And then God enters the story, and depending on your point of view, or the mood you’re in that day, it gets even funnier, or it gets kind of dark.

“Fool, tonight you will die. How’s that barn doing for you now, fella?”

Jesus’ listeners, who were largely what we’d consider really poor, probably would have cheered this turn in the story. But it’s provocative too, isn’t it? I’m not going to try to answer all the questions this story raises, because I want to focus on something else. But I really wanted to tell this story, and raise the questions it asks about how we accumulate and what’s important.

This guy and his barn and what it all means at his death – I’m going to mainly just let it hang there. I don’t think the takeaway is to spend zero energy planning for our future – to give no thought to our future is sometime to ensure our future regret and to ensure trouble for our loved ones.

But to my mind, Jesus is suggesting that a focus on accumulating possessions and wealth and security for ourselves, makes us not a very good friend of God, and not even a very good friend to ourselves.

Why is that? And what is the prophetic alternative Jesus is pitching?

That’s where I want to go. Let’s keep reading the rest of this section of Luke.

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! 25 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 26 If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? 27 Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! 29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. 30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them.31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

-Luke 12:22-34 (CEB)

So I think what we do with these words has a lot to do with the tone that we imagine Jesus speaking them. Now I hate it when people tone police my words, like when I say something to one of my kids, and they’re like: Dad, why’d you have to say that? And I’m like, I said: Hey, what do you need? And they’ll say to me: No, it’s that tone of voice you said it in.

Which is totally annoying, and totally fair, because I do the same thing to them, like: Don’t you look at me with that tone of voice.

It’s true. So much of our communication is beyond the words themselves – our tone and posture and body language. And here we have these words of Jesus on the page, and what and how we think about Jesus is going to have a big impact on how we take these words.

So if we imagine Jesus to be kind of strict and fed-up and annoyed with people who are getting in the way of the whole Son of God thing he’s trying to do, then we’ll hear these words as something like: Get. It. Together. You faithless people, who are so obsessed with money, knock it off. Pay attention to God instead.

And you know what, if we think this is how Jesus talks, we may or may not agree with the point we think he’s making, but we will not do it. He’ll seem too strict and too hard, and we’ll ignore his words and get all defensive or ashamed about it, but we will not do anything he says. Or we’ll do what we think he’s saying, but we’ll be as smug or critical or superior as we think Jesus is, and that too will be full of anxiety and an empty heart. And that will miss the point as well.

Instead I encourage you to believe that Jesus is gentle and that even the provocative things he says are said kindly and without any anxiety. So here, Jesus is like: “Sweetie.” He actually says, Little Flock, which is affectionate and warm, but I’ve never really been around a flock of anything before, so it doesn’t land. But I have this one friend who calls me Sweetie sometimes. It was weird and frankly horrifying to me for a while, and you do not have permission to call me that if you’re not related to me, but with this one friend, I got used to it, and now it’s warm and I take it with the affection he means when he says it.

Anyway, Jesus is like: Little Flock, sweetie, it’s OK. I know that life is hard. There is so much you can worry about. But there’s a better way. I’ve got your back. I know what you need. But take a look over here. There are people, there are treasures, just waiting for you.

I had this thing with Jesus recently when I was reminded how gentle he is and reminded about striving too. It started when I got ridiculously obsessed with exercise for a month or so. Part of my ADHD involves some impulsivity and a tendency to hyper-focus now and then on certain things. And last month, that involved working out, probably too much. OK, definitely too much.

Now there are worse things than working out, I suppose, but I was feeling a little embarrassed by how much time I had put into this, and kind of judgy on myself as well. And I had spiritualized that self-judgment, because when I talked to Jesus about this, I thought maybe Jesus was asking me what I was doing, in a particular judgy way I won’t get into right now.

So I tell this friend of mine, someone called a spiritual director – he’s basically my pastor – about this and about what I thought Jesus was saying.

And my friends says: just to be clear, those judgmental questions – are you sure they were the voice of God, or is it possible those were your thoughts about yourself, Steve? And he waited to say more, as I thought about it and realized: you know, I’m not so sure the judgment on me was coming from Jesus. That may have been me assuming how God sees me again. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. So many of us shape our image of God in the image of the angry or emotionally shut down or neglectful or critical authorities of our youth. And so we make gods for ourselves that don’t particularly honor God or ourselves.

But now, open that the real God might see me kindly, my friend suggested some other ways to interpret all the exercise I’d been doing: a less judgmental, even a more positive way of framing it. And somehow, it opened me up to what I came to believe was the actual voice of Jesus. Where in a silence in that conversation, this thought came to mind that felt like Jesus to me, saying Steve, this is good that you’re taking care of yourself. And Steve, I love that you’re joining in with your kids in things to do together too. But Steve, sweetie, is there a reason you’re going after this so much? Why are you striving, Steve? What are you striving for?

This to me sounded like Jesus, affirming the good he saw in me, like someone who knows and loves me and is gentle with me. And in the context of that gentle knowledge and love, raising something I need to see: why are you striving?

That word striving means so much to me. Because striving – working hard, working ambitiously, even impulsively, is in many areas of my life, part of how I’ve built a good life for myself. I’ve gotten some good things from striving.

But striving – pushing myself hard, ambitiously – is one of the ways that since I was teenager, I’ve tended to avoid my pain and not engage the most important things going on in my life too.

Some of us strive because we worry, and that’s our predilection. We struggle with anxiety. And thankfully there is help for that and we can make peace with that too, that this is part of who we are, and that’s OK, and we can learn with help to manage it. I’m not talking about that kind of worrying and whatever striving that might produce. And I don’t think Jesus is either.

I’m talking about the striving that people like me do, putting all this energy and self-protective labor into our drive because we’re trying to avoid an ache in our lives or because we’re afraid of the future.

Jesus says: I understand. But look at the flowers, look at the grass. God makes it so beautiful and how much more will God do for you. If we strive because there’s this ache or this problem we’re trying to avoid, we don’t have to, because God loves us. And we can sit with our lives with that same compassion. How much more will God do for you.

And if we strive because we’re afraid of the future, for what it holds for us or for our kids or for this earth, Jesus is like: look at the birds. They have no thought of the future, but God takes care of them, and no offense to the birds, but you are worth so much more.

When it comes to worry and striving, Jesus addresses our pragmatism. He asks: when has this ever worked? When have we made our life longer? When have we clenched our teeth and gritted out our way into joy? Jesus even manages to slip in a little dig at the famous King Solomon, the archetype of wealth and power in his culture. Jesus does this little side by side comparison. On the one side, there’s King Solomon – all the wealth and glory and fashion you could ever dream of striving your way up to. On the other side, grass. King Solomon, grass.

Have you been outdoors this spring? Grass wins. Really. This world God made and sustains is so beautiful.

What King Solomon-type are you striving to be? What vision of success or wealth or power or beauty or worthiness are you wishing you could worry or work or white-knuckle yourself into?

You’re better than that. You be you, the beautiful one God made, the beautiful one you are already.

You are enough, this world is enough, has enough, because, Jesus says, God is enough.

All the nations of the world want the things you want, Jesus says. And God, your good parent, knows what you need.

But think about what happens to us when we don’t think we’re enough, when we don’t think God has enough, when we’re striving and striving.

Our gaze becomes very focused and very small. Jesus calls it food and clothing, but it could be a lot of things. We can only see that next rung in our achievement, or that next dollar, or that next better day in our future. Or more often than not, we only see that opportunity that passed us by, that failure behind us or looming in front of us, that fatal flaw in our appearance or our family or our children or our fate.

Worry and striving lead us to a small and unhappy gaze.

While Jesus is saying, my Father has a Kingdom for you.

Now, a small aside here, we’ve spent time over the past year now and then encouraging us that some of the default patriarchal language and in our religious heritage isn’t the only vocabulary we have for God. Jesus again and again calls God Father, but there’s a subtext teaching us that God is Mother to us too. I’ve taught multiple times that family, or kin-dom, can be a great way of understanding what Jesus is getting at when Jesus talks about the Kingdom God is growing.

Today, in traditional church settings, is called Trinity Sunday, after the Christian formulation of the mystery that God is one being expressed in three persons – traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And theologians have been helpful to us in recent years in giving us broader ways, more language, to frame this three-fold personhood of God, so Father-Son-Holy Spirit can also be to us Maker-Guide-Wisdom, or Mother-Sibling-Advocate.

So much space in God, so much language to help us know and love and move close to God in ways that suit us today.

But this particular day being Father’s Day, I’m going to stay old school and just work Jesus’ language in this passage of Father and Kingdom.

Because what better gift can a Father give a child than to say: what you worry about today, I’ll help you take care of that. But look, there’s so much more for you too. Let me show you the best and biggest things in this world.

Perhaps a father, or if not perhaps a father-figure, has done that for you before – come alongside to help or encourage or protect and then also to help you see bigger or better or more beautiful things than you’d noticed before. Perhaps if you’re a father, you’ve done that for a child.

Jesus says this is what God is doing for God’s kids, to try to shift out attention from our striving and fears that we aren’t enough, that this world doesn’t have enough for us, and to show us this big and beautiful thing God is doing on the earth, this thing Jesus calls God’s Kingdom. God is growing people and places and spaces where God’s good and generous ways come to life.

And Jesus is saying: look at that for a while, be part of that, grow that with me. Open up your gaze. Find a bigger goal. Build a better treasure. Try trusting that the smaller things will take care of themselves.

I spent a lot of my late 20s with a smaller gaze, striving, worry that I wasn’t enough, that God didn’t have enough for me. Partly because of the family I was raised in, partly because of my own hang-ups, I was so afraid that my life wouldn’t amount to enough, that the story of my career and all the rest of me would be a failure. And most of that decade, I felt I didn’t have enough money, and so I worried about how money was spent in my household and felt and thought all kinds of judgy things about people and money in my life. And these not enough ways always made my life harder and smaller, but there were break-throughs in that first decade of my adult life in seeing the bigger, and more beautiful world God was trying to build and have me be a part of.

One of those ways was falling in love with and then marrying Grace. Because for me, that was a way of taking my eyes off of my own “not enough” and on to someone else, and starting to learn to love – to seek someone else’s highest good. I’m still not very good at this, but I’ve come to see some of the best and most beautiful things God is doing come when my gaze stays on someone else and on loving and appreciating and encouraging what I see. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be. Treasure your own needs and fears, and your heart just stays with you. Treasure others’ joy and fulfillment as well, and your heart gets tied up with them too, which is a path to some amount of pain, but a path to so much joy as well.

You obviously don’t need to be married or have kids to have this experience. For me, in my 20s, marriage and then having my first child were windows into learning to love. But so was youth work – first college ministry and then public education. And for you, it might well be happening in some other way.

I even had a little taste in my 20s of learning the Father’s beautiful, more than enough Kingdom on the terms that Jesus is going to in this passage, with money. Sell what you have and give it away to those who need it more, Jesus says. Make yourself better wallets – ones that will last.

I didn’t have a ton of money in my 20s, but with what I had, I made a lot of bad money choices. Who hasn’t? I blew money on a couple dumb things. I didn’t use money toward some great things I could have. There was even a time when one of my grandparents died and I got a life insurance payment, I hadn’t known about. I had a couple thousand dollars I was going to try to learn to invest with. One of my friends insisted I put it on this new company he was buying his books from online. He said it was called Amazon, and that if he had any money to invest, he’d put it there. I was like: Amazon, a book store you can’t even visit and open the books. No way.

If I had invested $1,000 in Amazon back then, I’d have $1,208,000 today. That’s a lot more money than I have. That might have been nice. I didn’t do that, though.

One thing I did, though, is know that it’s always broken my heart when kids are neglected and abused. And with the couple thousand dollars of the insurance money that Grace and I were ready to give away, I found an organization that would use that money to send four girls in Southeast Asia to high school and out of risk for human trafficking. And when we gave that money and got that report, I cried for joy as much as I ever had to that point. That just seemed like a huge treasure we had our found our way into.

And despite my many mistakes, and many moments of striving and fear and small-mindedness, each time I’ve been part of a big and beautiful thing God has done, it’s shaped my heart in ways nothing can change, and no one can take away.

But now I’m not in anything like my 20s. I’m mid-way through my 40s now. And so instead of asking: what life will I build for myself? Now I’m asking: how do I feel about this life that I’ve built, and that has been built for me? What parts do I treasure? What parts do I accept? What parts do I course correct?

How in all that can I say: There is enough. With the help of God and friends, I am enough. Life has enough. God is enough.

Thankfully, I find that as I’m doing this, because of my engagement in this faith community, I’m surrounded by encouragement and models in this regard.

Last week I spoke with someone in their 40s who has more money than they expected to have at this point in life, and we were talking – not for the first time – about a way they felt a desire to use some of that money toward something beautiful they thought God was wanting to do in the world. And when I went to appreciate them for their generosity, they said: hey, it’s God’s money. And they said it so reflexively, so quickly, that it was clearly the result of years of thinking in that regard, years of learning that when their money is tied to God’s beautiful work in the world, they have treasure.

A couple weeks ago, I was with a colleague of mine who is based in Mattapan. He’s a Haitian-American pastor, who also runs a small business to support his family. And in his ministry, and through his business, and with huge swaths of his so-called free time, he advocates for his fellow immigrant congregants and customer and community members, whose immigration status and life in this country are less secure than his. I find myself wondering sometimes why he puts so much work into this when his life is secure now, but then I notice that he’s not striving to make his mark in the world or anything. He’s got a mission, and he finds passion and joy in it. And that encourages me to give a little more to God’s beautiful work securing the futures of vulnerable residents of my nation. I’m not alone in this congregation. Many of you are doing the same, which is why we’re celebrating World Refugee Day today, because there’s an awful lot of work to do on behalf of our immigrant and refugee and asylum-seeking brothers and sisters, but there are many of us to do that work, and many of us to do it. Stop by the tables in the dome at the end of the service to learn more.

I could tell a lot more stories about the people in this church, and the people throughout my life, that are inspiring me to find a better treasure by building a better wallet, who are encouraging me to step into the big and beautiful things God is doing around me.

But instead of more stories, I’ll just punctuate this by saying this is not another burden, not a set of hard things God is wanting to make you do, but a delight and joy for us all. This is part of what it means, Jesus says, for God to be a good Father to us all – to free us from our fears, to tell us we are enough and this world is enough because God is enough for us, and then to not shield us from pain or just give us everything we once thought we wanted. Good parents don’t give our kids everything they want, and we know that it’s not possible and not even good to shield our kids from every pain. Instead, God is a good Father, and a good Mother, to us all, by taking care of us, and especially to calling us into treasuring all the big and beautiful things God is doing around us, and letting God do some of that through us as well.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

In personal interactions and in systems, generously do what diminishes the causes of other people’s stress and striving.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Rest. Refocus. Aim to serve the person and purposes of God.

The Steadiness of Improvising

Happy Pride! Happy glorious sunshine and happy morning!

This morning I want to start with some words that have helped me, specifically over the last year, that have really been a guiding force for me in my vocation as a pastor, but really in all of life—words that came to me long before we thought of this “Prophetic Living” sermon series that we are in. They are words from one of the world’s greatest teachers on the prophets, Walter Brueggemann.  I read at some point last year a great swath of his work and I felt like he spoke directly to me when he said that good preachers and teachers help other people make sense of God by helping them “pause long enough” to take in who God is to them. And he said to do this, we need to indulge the metaphors and imagery of God that we’ve gleaned from scripture: “the giver of the biggest dinner party ever,” “father,” “mother,” “divine,” “king,”  “ a powerful sea monster,” “a gentle nursemaid,” a tender friend “who wipes away every tear from all faces” and so on (December 20, 2011 On Being).

Mr. Brueggemann says that what preachers and teachers and the church as a whole succeed at doing however, is often flattening out “all the images and metaphors of God,  to make it fit in a nice little formulation” that works within creeds and doctrines ⁠— a little cleaner. But of course, a formulaic approach to God comes at a loss, because it allows for no flexible, relational connection to God, who we hope is a real and living, loving, moving spirit in our midst.

So his real charge, to me, was that we have to figure out a way to “take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame,” if we want more than a formula bound God. The use of poetry and imagery that scripture and people around us and the whole of this life offers us demands our imagination, and, if we can call it forth, will actually give us more access to God!  It’s the pathway to growth, the deep spiritual formation we are seeking and wanting.

But this growth won’t abide by a linear graph. It’s not a straightforward trajectory, an “up and to the right” picture.

This spiritual life ⁠— that Jesus absolutely calls us to live ⁠— is far beyond what could be mapped out.

It requires us to go into spaces unknown, to take a journey, to open doorways that haven’t been opened, to say things that haven’t been put to air and imagine and explore new ways forward that have not yet been carved into the ground in front of us, to listen and pay attention to the fullness of the world around us (as it’s ever-changing).

This life, with God in the mix,  requires us to IMPROVISE. And this is what I want to spend some time digging into this morning, this improvisation life we get to live.

I’ve been surprised at how defensive I am to this word “improvise.” it calls up so much fear. My most vivid nightmares to this day are walking up on stage without a plan, no sermon text, not knowing where I’m going.

This is just unwise, and disrespectful, and irreverent.  

So I want to clarify today what holding our lives open to improvising can look like ⁠—to dispel the sense, maybe, that it’s a complete free-for-all, and to pitch that to improvise calls us into deep listening of one another and God and allows us to create new pathways.  We can draw from a rich, vibrant history, a bedrock of faithful improvisors ⁠— the prophets and prophetesses that have gone before us, who held their lives open to God’s story in a way that steadied their posture for the future unseen, in an unpredictable world.

Jesus calls us to this life ⁠— a life designed to be improvised ⁠— because our foundation is as true as the great prophets, with this knowing ⁠— the knowing of who we are and who God is to us, (as best we can tell).  This is all we need for the script of life, to move forward with improvisational and transformative ways… that gives shape to our days and the world around us.

Young Ivy ⁠— Improviser

The first two years of my elementary education were spent at a Christian school – where my main takeaway after that time was to memorize everything I could. That seemed to be what we spend most of our days doing! We memorized multiplication tables, and nursery rhymes, and songs, and chapters upon chapters of the Bible, and some poetry.

To visually take in our growth in these areas, the teacher displayed construction paper cut-out balloons on the wall, for each student in a multitude of colors, with our names on each of them.

If you succeeded in passing your oratory tests with the teacher in front of the class, than your balloon moved in an upward direction.

If you did not succeed, your error would be represented by a tack* in your balloon.

And if you got three tacks in your balloon in one day, you got a spank with a wooden paddle.

((*you could also get tacks for lots of other things – beyond just getting things wrong on a tests.))

I was TERRIFIED of getting spanked ⁠— what humiliation.  So I always studied the crap out of whatever we were tasked with memorizing.  

I became very, very good at memorizing.  I loved words, and I loved having my aptitude tracked!

But as my 2nd year at that school went on, I was tiring of straight memorization. I started to imagine and mingle selections that we had to memorize.  I once took the story of the disciples in the boat during the storm and inter-wove it with a poem we had to memorize called Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

And I remember so clearly, reciting the verses in King James Version, :

24 “And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but Jesus was asleep”.(Matthew 8 KJV)

And then going off script (a little bit):

The old moon laughed and sang a song,

  As they rocked in the wooden shoe;

And the wind that sped them all night long

  Ruffled the waves of dew;

The little stars were the herring-fish

  That lived in the beautiful sea.

“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—

  Never afraid are we!”

  So cried the stars to the fishermen three,



           And Nod. – (Eugene Fields)


I’m not sure if I was testing the limits or not, but it kind of made sense to my 2nd grade imagination to try to make a scary, fearful scene of waves and storm where Jesus is asleep be a more expansive scene where God could be the moon or stars, touching and talking to these fisherman in their little wooden boat.

And I remember those words like they were yesterday, but that little creative burst, that shining moment of improv got me my first ever 3rd tack in my balloon.

Now, I actually didn’t get spanked. The teacher did take me out back, but had mercy on me for my good track record.  But it instilled in me a fear of going off script. And my teacher gave me a distinct lecture of how to think about “learning” and “knowing” specifically, God. Growth on those fronts, could only be found in following and keeping to the plan.

The sting of that moment wore off as I left that school and continued my education elsewhere. And I actually warmed to the idea of taking control of my own trajectory.   It seemed easy enough ⁠— learn material required, demonstrate proficiency, move balloon higher than the rest ⁠— a workable formula for a great life.  Get yourself into this school, get this degree, get this job,  gain power, knowledge and success, which then equals triumph of this whole arc and produces a sense of well-being, ease, and prosperity.

Of course as I grew up and experienced more of life and witnessed the reality of life for a lot of my friends, I realized that this way of thinking and living was actually quite privileged ⁠— this linear advancement.

It assumes at its baseline that things will go our way, things will be in our control (and that we all have equal access to resources). And this is just not reality for most people.  God calls us into an improvisational way of thinking and living because God knows that to be made human, means our life comes with limitations, whether we are born into them, or crash into  them ⁠— a life where things go wrong, off-plan.

And so the the credentials that God wants us to come around to, that are required for this life, are a deep yet evolving knowing of ourselves and God.

I’m so helped by revisiting the stories that still live on in our midst ⁠— the lives of those who took in God’s story in ways that shaped them, and the world around them. And it’s why today I’d love to look at the prophetess Miriam.

Miriam ⁠— Improviser

We are going to read a bit of her story here on your program in Exodus… And where we enter this story is a setting found in ancient Egypt, where the Pharoah of the time, has become frustrated with the rising Hebrew population.  He’s concerned that they are becoming too powerful, despite his efforts to keep them down through forced labor and slavery…. So his next attempt, as we enter into here, is that he has just ordered midwives to kill all male babies born to Hebrew women – by drowning them.  

So let’s read this together:

Exodus 2:1-9 (NLT)

1 About this time, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi got married. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son (the son’s name was Moses). She saw that he was a special baby and kept him hidden for three months. 3 But when she could no longer hide him, she got a basket made of papyrus reeds and waterproofed it with tar and pitch. She put Moses in the basket and laid him among the reeds along the bank of the Nile River. 4 The baby’s sister, MIRIAM, then stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to him.

5 Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, and her attendants walked along the riverbank. When the princess saw the basket among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it for her. 6 When the princess opened it, she saw the baby. The little boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This must be one of the Hebrew children,” she said.

7 Then the baby’s sister, Miriam, approached the princess. “Should I go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” she asked.

8 “Yes, do!” the princess replied. So the girl went and called the baby’s mother.

9 “Take this baby and nurse him for me,” the princess told the baby’s mother. “I will pay you for your help.” So the woman took her baby home and nursed him.

Miriam was born at a time when the bitter enslavement of her people was reaching its depths of despair. The constraints of her life by the hands of the Egyptians were strong with inequity, entrenched in power dynamics, and systems that were oppressing and abusing her people. Any concept of a linear path for her life was certainly not in the cards! Her credentials were only, it seems, this deep knowing of God.  A God that maybe her mother had whispered to her of a God that loved her and her people, one that would provide and raise them up out of slavery one day to become a great nation.  Her only training seems to come out of that foundation, the steadiness of who she can believe God to be. And so she trains her imagination as a young girl without pedigree to imagine a world where someday these promises could be true. And it seems that this foundation, of tradition and imagination  is enough to propel her into the Scriptural canons of high regard as the first female prophet, and the mother of all female prophets to come.

And it seems to me, she gets there by improvising.  Holding her life open, flexible, just as it is – to the story of God.

In the world of music, most notably jazz, to improvise is to not be a showy, solo act, that attracts all the attention. It doesn’t rest on one’s ability to be original, or clever or witty or spontaneous. It’s about being so steeped in the foundation of the musical structure that its rhythms and patterns and harmonies and melodies become and shape a known & familiar inner voice of the musician, from which they then can create new shapes and forms of music, from.

And all of that doesn’t come from only practicing scales and memorizing music ⁠— it comes from the steadiness of watching and listening.

Miriam in this scripture does just this ⁠— she watches and she listens. It’s the first thing we see her do 4: it says she stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to the baby.

And she stays there, observing the scene ⁠— taking it all in. And she doesn’t move until the other player comes onto the stage ⁠— the Pharaoh’s daughter.
And she listens to the Pharaoh’s daughters words, who when she sees the baby says, “This must be one of the Hebrew children”.

It’s so wise that Miriam listened. There’s a lot of information in that one sentence that helps Miriam know how to improvise.

If the Pharaoh’s daughter had said, to her attendants,  “oh! – a baby – check to see if he’s circumcised or not,” it wouldn’t have been good if Miriam had jumped in and said, “Oh do you need a Hebrew woman to nurse this baby?” because Pharaoh’s daughter wouldn’t have known that information yet, and Miriam’s approach and words would have been suspicious.

Or if the Pharaoh’s daughter had said, “Look! One of the Hebrew children, KILL HIM – carry out my father’s orders.”

Miriam’s reality would have been different, and required a different action.

To improvise in life requires great listening to others and the spirit of God. This listening allows us to create new ways forward ⁠— paths unseen. I can imagine that Miriam’s first steps into the Nile River were taken from listening to God, where God nudged her “go, Miriam, go” and all of the steps to follow, unknown and unpredictable, were bolstered by this knowing of  God’s steady voice. It allows her to work within the limitations of her reality as a slave, and yet utilize a social structure that she knows where royalty, upon seeing a baby, would need a nurse-maid.

Our life with God is a life where we are welcomed into a story that is continually being created in the moment with players and actors that we have never met. And yet the call, that I think Miriam responds to and that we are all invited to, is to say “yes” to all of that before the plans are laid out and to take what we do know of ourselves and God with courage to the scene, and trust that that is enough to create something we can’t predict.

Miriam wasn’t concerned about being “clever.” In improv, this is the number one ticket to becoming paralyzed on stage ⁠— this preoccupation of being clever. But she was listening to the voice within herself, and the voices on the scene, and responded to a call that was greater than herself and her own understanding.  

A sister in the Catholic order, Joan Brown, who’s voice I love says, “We are called to be larger than who we can imagine being in the moment.” This is the call of the Spirit of God.

Who knows if Miriam understood as a little girl that her actions would open the gateway for the great Exodus and liberation of her people. She might have just wanted her baby brother back, but her willingness to listen and improvise allowed her to be a large force for her people.

Sometimes, though, our moves to improvise fall flat. We get tacks in our balloons and we plummet hard to the earth. But I can look back at my moment of co-mingling scripture and poetry in the 2nd grade, and see how clearly God was moving and laying a firm foundation (even through memorization) ⁠— a steady foundation of a knowing, a knowing of who I was, what I loved, what mattered to me, to see that I still love words and metaphors and text, and also a knowing of who God is to me ⁠— an encourager of growth, of creating new things ⁠— and God’s deep desire to partner with me in all of it!

For the many years I’ve thought about content or spiritual growth in any capacity as a community group leader or as a parent or as a friend, I am always weaving poetry and scripture together. Ask my kids ⁠— they might roll their eyes, they’ve gotten a taste of it for sure! And this requires great listening in those spaces where I put out content, because I have no plan of how it is going to land (whether that is a strength or a fail, i’m not sure). But I don’t have an end result in mind, and so listening is crucial and this is growth,  is to watch for the spirit of God, and move from there ⁠— to improvise from there in the moment. I think it’s the most dynamic gift that we can bring to wherever we are (this Sanctuary space, your work places, your homes). We get to bring the improvising personality of the HOLY SPIRIT  ⁠— always working among people ⁠— and bring that out among people who are learning to see and know and trust one another in community and witness the extraordinary things that God can create with quirky and limited resources. That is spiritual growth, and WOOO! It’s not linear.

“There is a yearning – for energy in a world grown weary” (Walter Brueggemann). We long for a life that is improvise-able. And wouldn’t it be amazing if God invites us to energize our world — our future — to invite people to wade in the water with us, to bring out the mystery of  how and where we find the Holy Spirit, whether it’s through a gesture, or an act, or a collection of words mingled.

Or through Broadway musicals.

Lin-Manuel Miranda — Improviser

I want to show you a video clip of a master improviser — one who I think you’ll recognize! Lin-Manuel Miranda:

This clip is from 2009, six years before Hamilton ever hit Broadway.  No one had heard that song other than his wife, and he said if that song had landed flat in that room that evening he was going to scrap the project and start something new.

The reason Hamilton works is because through Lin-Manuel’s improvisation, there is no distance between the story that happened 200 some odd years ago and now.

Because it looks like America now.

It creates a connection from the stories of old, to our stories now.

And isn’t this what we can hope for with scripture — that the stories of the Bible would be connected to our stories, in ways that continue to open and open the image of God in each of us.

The way Lin-Manuel Miranda improvises in so many ways — the music, the cast (nearly all people of color), the language — allows our history to be opened up with a new lens, new energy.

He imagined that Hamilton was a hip hop story and that wasn’t just a random stroke of genius (well certainly not random!) — but it was an evolving concept built upon the foundational traditions that Lin-Manuel treasured so much. He said, “It wasn’t enough to rhyme at the end of the line, every line had to have musical theatre references, it had to have other hip-hop references, it had to do what my favorite rappers do, which is packing lyrics with so much density, and so much intricate double entendre, and alliteration, and onomatopoeia, and all the things that I love about language”

And the result is this powerful mingling, connecting musical pasts with the musical present, and the historical past mingles with our present realities.

This mingling, through improvising, allows a process of constant growth and invites us to create too.

There’s a principle in improv, that I’ve been learning about this week from many people I’ve talked to in the performance arts — this principle, called “yes…and…” It’s the nexus where all creation is birthed from!  It’s this idea that you validate what is coming at you in a scene as true. You say, “YES – I receive this as reality”. And you agree to become a partner in that, to add your “AND” to whatever that reality is.  You’ll build upon it, whether it’s messy or imperfect (or incredibly off-script). And you trust that this is actually the growth and the beauty of the scene — the new creation.

With God, I feel like this principle applies. It’s a journey of “yes – ands”…  and it’s certainly a journey of messiness and imperfection!

And of course the stakes feel higher in real life!  There are lots of things that we don’t want to say “yes” to — circumstances that surround us that are unjust and unfair. So when we say “yes” we aren’t saying that we agree or like it, but the invitation of God is to consider “how can I improvise and bring to this circumstance the most wholeness?”  How can I create new goodness, and love here?

After the scripture we read about Miriam we don’t see her enter the scene again until decades later.  When we greet her again, she’s a grown woman.

On your program is the later part of Exodus — Chapter 15 — where she is a central force of this historical exodus of her people from slavery.  She leads her people in dancing and song and celebration, as they cross the Red Sea. We don’t know for sure what she did for all the years in between, but we do know that Moses went into hiding for decades, building a new life with no intent on returning to his people.  So we can assume that during that time Miriam was the people’s prophet, their only prophet. 

She continued to improvise during those years. She continued to listen to her people, to live alongside of them, to reassure them and offer them the steady story of God. A God who was real and did hear their prayers — that would bring them freedom and liberation.  She continued to usher in the wholeness and goodness and love of God, even when freedom was not yet found.

And I think this is exactly what is so compelling to me about Lin-Manuel Miranda — his flexibility to use the platforms that he has, beyond the Broadway stage, to offer wholeness to the world around him. He doesn’t just vocationally exercise improvisational methods — but he is someone who embodies an improvisational way of life.  Who walks and engages with the world, and asks us to play, to create and to imagine.  A writer friend of mine, Jessica Kantrowitz, wrote an article for Sojourner’s magazine  where she talks about the priestliness of Lin-Manuel.

And I agree with her!  His twitter account is one of the most WHOLESOME twitter feeds that I follow. He calls out the reality of life, acknowledging its complexity and harshness and it’s non-linear paths.

And over the last three years this has become more of a regular pattern in his tweets.   They have become known as “gmorning” and “gnight” tweets. And often they are a reprise of each other.  

My friend Jessica says, they have become a structure of her days, like a liturgy, where she can receive blessings and benedictions for her day. To me, they are a capsule of the Holy Spirit, deposited to me on my phone in less than 280 characters. There is a generative energy that comes and invites me to say “yes…. and,” to keep moving and creating in this life — a gentle nudge of the spirit of God, as was to Miriam, “go, go, go”.

It was hard for me, in those early years of memorization,  to tap into the spirit of God, to understand what a relationship could be with someone I couldn’t see! I think that’s why I started looking for other sources, other words that would bring story and life to my imagination — that would unlock the mystery of the verses that felt flattened out and life-less.  It’s why I’m thankful for voices like the prophet Miriam’s and Lin-Manuel’s to remind us of God’s steady goodness — to keep opening it up in new ways. Because it’s STILL sometimes not that easy for me to feel like God’s steady voice or heart or love is easy to tap into.

This is why we need to keep improvising. Because God is not a static being — one who sits in one specific pew or chair on a Sunday morning — or one who is only found in the memorized lines of scripture. But God is one who is found in the living love of the Holy Spirit, nestled in the corners of our days, and found in the most expansive of places and people!  And its why Walter Brueggemann’s words hit me so hard, because it’s up to us to keep opening and opening and opening those places up — to roam around in them whether it’s found on our phones through tweets, or through wading in the waters of our unknown life, or stopping at a monastery on Storrow Drive… or playing on a soccer field with 200 kids!

We need to lead a prophetic life of improvising so that we don’t give way to dying, flattening metaphors of God. We need to do the great work of living this life as fully as we can, as we see it with our limited perspectives in the hopes of untangling God from the one-dimensional graphs we try to place Him on.

I’d love for us now to improvise a little — nothing crazy or zany — but to play with the words of both Miriam and Lin-Manuel Miranda here.

There are two tweets and one verse which holds the song of Miriam.

We are going to do a simple writing exercise called erasure, which means you will circle words or phrases that stand out to you and erase/ cross-out all the others.  Don’t over think this process, trust that you are connected to God and that God can highlight words for you:


Pain, joy, frustration, euphoria, everything.

It all passes. It all keeps moving.

Wherever you are is temporary.

Let’s go!

Oct. 20, 2016, morning tweet


Rage, bliss, fatigue, rapture, everything.

It all passes. It all keeps moving.

Wherever you are is fleeting.


Oct. 20, 2016, evening tweet

And  Miriam’s song found in verse 21 of Exodus 15, that last verse where she sings:

“Sing to the Lord,

   for he has triumphed gloriously;

he has hurled both horse and rider

   into the sea.”  Miriam – Exodus 15:21

As a spiritual practice this week:

Take these words with you, whether they make sense to you right now or not, and hold them loosely, and improvise from them as your week goes on.  Offer them as a prayer to God and offer them to the world around you, watch to see what it yields, how it expands and evolves.

And as a way to end and as a whole life flourishing tip to take with you, let me pray for  us:

May you let the steady story of Jesus be the story that gives shape to your life.  And may you live out this story with other people as best you can, at Reservoir, in your neighborhood and in your city.  And trust that you hold within you the perfect script for life — the ever-evolving/improvising story of Jesus.


Paying Attention to a Communicative God


As we’ve been in this spring series on prophetic living, we’ve talked about prophetic living as seeking best as we’re able to feel the feelings and think the thoughts of God in our day and age, and to live as if that matters.

In some circles, though, the word prophetic has a narrower meaning, which is drawn from the source of the prophets of the Bible’s insights, when they claimed to hear and speak the voice of God. The claim or hope to hear the voice of God has both been one of the more wonderful and awful aspects of faith experience and faith communities for me.


On the one hand, to practice prayer as if it isn’t just a one way street, as if God can stir my imagination, activate ideas and thoughts and words I don’t experience as coming from me but from God – well, that’s been one of the sweetest and most powerful aspects of a life of faith for me. To feel that I’m never alone, and that there is a personal, spiritual force is with me, that is responsive to me, that cares. And yet on the other hand, running in circles where people think God is speaking to them has also meant on occasion that I’ve heard people confidently speak for God when I thought they were only working out their own fears and resentments. More than once, I’ve had a religious person with this sense of the prophetic go out of their way to curse me, literally curse me – like pronouncing bad things God will do to me and the people and work I care about.  And then they’ve told me that they were speaking on behalf of God against me, but you know they love me and will pray for me. Pastor life. Now I’ll say these experiences, which were odd and unpleasant didn’t seem to be of God at all for me.


I’ve also had people say wonderful things to me that they told me they thought God had spoken to them, encouraging things members of this church have shared with me. There was the time when I was 23 years old, and a stranger walked up to me and told me that when he saw me, he thought God spoke to him that I was to become a pastor. He was like 16 years early, but hey, it happened. That was cool.


But then on the other hand, I’ve had someone say to me, confidently, that God showed them that God was going to heal my hearing loss when they prayed for me, and they were wrong.


So, all to say, the talk about hearing God’s voice today has been mainly awesome for me, but it’s had its weird and uncomfortable sides too. How about for you, Michaiah? When did you come to this hope or faith or experience of people today feeling God was speaking to them?




Just to react and give voice to what I think some of us are thinking hearing your stories, is that some of those experiences you had sound yucky and yah, powerful too.


So when did I come to experience the feeling that God is speaking? If you will, I’d like to expand the term “hearing” from God before launching into my history and perspective, just  because that word “hearing” lends us toward a sensory experience or particular mode of communication.

And I’d like to swap or replace that word with “experiencing God.” It’s not a perfect word either, but “experiencing”, or “perceiving” or “recognizing” the presence of God, will more broadly capture our various ways of knowing God.


When I was young, there were times when people told me that I could perceive things about people’s lives that I hadn’t been told. People told me that this ability to notice and detect an event or particular difficult situation in someone’s life such as a struggle with an addiction or an affliction, was a spiritual gift. I was told that I had “discernment” and more specifically a gift of “discerning spirits”.

What I wrestled with the most in my young adult years was in understanding what the purpose for me in knowing or perceiving the weight and troubles of others? What was I supposed to do with this gift? I didn’t always know.

I had a long standing regret that I carried for years because when as a teenager I didn’t follow this clear sense I had in my spirit to tell a drunken man in a trench coat that God wanted him to know that he was loved by God.

I’ve learned to ask my questions directly to God- “What is this for? Why are you showing me this? What do you want me to do right now?” and then to wait.

Regardless of the invitation God gives me for each circumstance, I think the big purpose for every moment that we perceive the presence of God is for drawing us further into relationship with God– to hang in the mystery and the uncertainty, and to curiously ask God- what’s this all about? Why am I thinking this? That’s what spiritual growth is all about- this learning to have an ongoing conversation with God.

It was pointed out to me early on that it was God who was communicating with me. Because I am sensitive to people’s personal experiences and struggles, that has built my confidence in seeing the world in a particular way.  God speaks to me in the way that I know, and I know that I can access and talk to God through this way.


But the bottom line is that people don’t have to fit their round selves into a square hole- God knows how to communicate with all us- and it doesn’t look the same for all of us. So really the figuring out how God communicates with us is really important in having sustained communication or relationship with the One who knows us best.


Steve: So as I thought about the possibility of us hearing from God, or to honor the language you’re giving us, Michaiah, the possibility of us experiencing and perceiving a communicative God, I’m keenly aware that today in our services, we have people who feel this has been their experience, others who are entirely skeptical that a person could hear God speak, and others that feel curious but inexperienced.


And as I thought of that mix, this passage from the beginning of the work of the prophet Jeremiah, when early in his life Jeremiah also doesn’t find it realistic that any person – or at least not him – could speak for God. And we get this little dialogue…


Jeremiah 1:11-14 (CEB)

11 The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

I said, “A branch of an almond tree.”

12 The Lord then said, “You are right, for I’m watching over my word until it is fulfilled.” 13 The Lord asked me again, “What do you see?”

I said, “A pot boiling over from the north.”

14 The Lord said to me, “Trouble will erupt from the north against the people of this land.”


Jeremiah is a teenager, and he has this sense that’s he’s supposed to speak for God to his culture that is in huge turmoil and upheaval, but he’s not confident. So he has this training session of sorts, where he’s learning to experience and perceive the presence of God.


It starts with a play on words. My favorite hat was a gift made to me from two Uyghur friends in the Northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang. You may have been hearing of the inhumane treatment the Uyghurs have been going through over the past twenty years, and the past few years in particular. It’s heart-breaking, and personal to Grace and me.


Anyway, these friends gave me a hat with an almond embroidered on it, because they said the word for almond was very similar to a word for something like integrity, so the hat was an affirmation and a blessing as well.


Here Jeremiah is praying outdoors and he’s looking at this branch of an almond tree, and the word “watching over” or “tending” which sounds just like the word “almond” in Hebrew, comes to mind. And he realizes God is tending to God’s words, that they will come to pass. A rich image for him.


Now our very next verse moves on to something different, but we should remember that scrolls in ancient times were very expensive, and writing was kind of a specialty activity, so things get condensed. It’s OK to imaginatively read between the lines – in fact there’s a whole Jewish tradition of doing this called midrash.


Anyway, so I imagine that later that day, after Jeremiah was thinking over the almond/watching play on words, he’d perhaps cooked some stew for lunch, and as he’s looking at that  boiling pot, and it looks menacing, and the thought pops into his mind – it’s coming, that army up in the North everyone is talking about. They’re coming to get us.


This passage is written like a dictation – Jeremiah sees this, God says this. But much more likely this is a shortened, simplified version of Jeremiah’s experience, recounted decades later… where he’s praying, sensing within this call to speak for God to his people, feeling inadequate and unclear, when he sees n front of him the branch of an almond tree, and another meaning comes to mind… and later, again, there’s a boiling pot and it comes to mean something more. Jeremiah is experiencing God communicating with him through the objects around him, as the word play and symbolism of those objects comes to life.


I think apart from the details of where Jeremiah is going, there is an invitation to us to imagine that God can speak to many people, and through many means….


Michaiah, I know that you spend some time actually teaching people, training people to try to discern the voice of God, to try to practice or learn God speaking to us? Can you tell us more how you do this, or specifically, how it is God can speak to us through many means?



Sure thing, Steve. The starting point of this conversation usually begins by naming or learning what God’s heart is toward us.  We believe that by learning what God’s heart and concerns are we’ll recognize what God’s nature and character, maybe God’s personality and temperament as well.


Many of the  stories in the Bible have been helpful to me because they capture qualities and attributes of God that resonate with my own experience with God.

These stories have shown me that God’s heart toward us is of -peace, love, to not leave us alone, God does not come to destroy us, God is for us and not against us, God cares and provides, and the cornerstone of our faith is that God is good.


The content of our various ways we perceive and experience God has the good fruit of – love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness… Even when God is sad, or correcting us…when we’ve turned against ourselves or another person or away from God in our hearts, the message won’t ever hold guilt, shame, or anxiety, but will have this message of deep and abiding love.


I heard before that you could read the Bible and learn God by asking two questions- “Who is God in this passage?” and “Who am I?” So if you read through the Bible asking those questions, you’d come out learning who God is and how God interacts with people.


Learning what God’s voice sounds like and how it’s distinguished from other voices is a good place to start when we’re talking about hearing or perceiving God.

Learning the method or manner in which God speaks to us, individually, is the fun part, because it involves some internal exploration. I read a line that said “Your personality may be a clue to unlocking how God speaks to you.” This is an art of uncovering your spiritual preference pathway, or spiritual personality type, or sacred pathway, or your spiritual wiring. There are many brilliant authors who have written books about this, which is where I get this language from.


Some of us are more relationally oriented, others of us are pragmatically oriented- knowing what your created language is might uncover how God relates or messages with you.


And just to say all of this is incredibly simplistic and if you’re like me you don’t fit into just one category. So a Thinking person- more analytical, theoretical, may be comfortable wrestling with text.Through their thoughts and knowledge from other sources (like books or podcasts or study…)may be their natural way of receiving God’s Spirit. A Feeling person-may experience God through their senses, sights, sounds, smells, images, pictures, metaphors. A Naturalist- may find God in more contemplative or outdoor spaces. They might encounter God in activities like gardening, or star gazing, or hiking or being in silence, or other meditative practices.


But you know many of us have been taught these painfully limited methods of knowing/perceiving/engaging with God. For example, I was taught that if I “read my Bible, pray every day, then I’ll grow, grow, grow”. And while these particular disciplines have been hugely helpful to me and many of our spiritual growth and development- It has also been short sighted in how and when and where our creator God can communicate this message of love to us. One of my favorite verses is Romans 1:20 that says, For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. This has been incredibly freeing to me to believe that God can communicate God’s message of love and existence without words.


I don’t think God only uses a landline phone to communicate. I think God communicates through land, water, sea, through creation, and other people, through dreams, spontaneously, like a lightning quick thought, glimmer. God isn’t limited to one method of transmission.


And figuring out how we receive that Word of life, and power, and love, is simply an act of discipline. Learning God is as important as learning yourself. So I’d suggest learn how to relate to God according to your unique self as opposed to relating to God through another.  


STEVE – Michaiah, that is so freeing, so personal, so good. Thank you. As you describe many people learning to listen to God in different ways, I have to say that I used to have a sense that claiming to hear or experience God was for people who were especially faithful or especially crazy (I couldn’t always decide which!) but I’m reminded that our faith teaches otherwise…


Joel 2:28-29 (CEB)

28 After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;

       your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

       your old men will dream dreams,

       and your young men will see visions.

29 In those days, I will also pour out my

   spirit on the male and female slaves.


STEVE – So Joel was a prophet from maybe the fifth century B.C. and in this section he’s hoping, imagining a future time when his nation is restored, there’s abundant food and drink, good harvests, military threats eliminated – all the great dreams of an agrarian society. But the hope goes way bigger and broader than that – that all of the earth will be drawn into this big redemption story, that God in mercy will reanimate and heal all people and cultures, in part through the inner renewal I just read about – God’s Spirit being poured out on all people.


There’s a radical expansion of the experience of the prophetic here, one that had been echoed in many other ancient prophets – that people, young and old, women and men, high and low status, even Jewish and not, could be filled with the Spirit of God and an experience of a good and communicative God. Never alone, never liable to despair or shame.


The early followers of Jesus believed that in Jesus, who they called the word made flesh – the communicative truth of God become a person, everyone around Jesus experienced God in this way. And that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus released his spirit into the world in a new way, fulfilling this hope that God could be present to all people who seek God.


This notion of God present to us in a body, we call incarnational – from in-carnate, meaning in a body. And this experience of God present in Jesus, fully human and fully divine, gives us a pattern – an incarnational pattern – to understanding all experience of God that we can have. That it is all incarnational – fully human and fully divine. 100% us, even when it’s also 100% from God as well.


Michaiah, you’ve shared with me that you think of this process of listening to God as always fully human and fully divine – full of real experience of God, but very much full of our own selves. Can you say more about this?



Sure, yah. We can’t eliminate ourselves from the picture of hearing, interpreting, or even delivering any messages from God. As my friend Dorothy says, it’s never all you/it’s never all God. But you’re a big part of the equation.


This reminds me of a story that I love to tell from my days as youth pastor. I call it the “Hamburger story”. In youth group we had the practice of celebrating birthdays by giving a gift card to an ice cream spot and listening to God for words of encouragement for the birthday teen’s year ahead.


So here we are praying for LIzzy (we’ll call her), and Baron (we’ll call him) was asked to pray (because it was his birthday the previous month). The only thing that comes to his mind was hamburger.  So, we’re not going to discount this word, “hamburger” is in fact God speaking. So we press and say, “ok. Hamburger. Okay. God. What else?”


Baron, is pressing in, He begins to describe the burger- “all I can think is juicy, lettuce, tomato, cheese…” Kids start chuckling. He says, “I’m probably thinking about that because we had burgers for dinner last night, and my dad was talking about this book “Dancing with Jesus” …”


All of a sudden LIzzy lights up, and says, “I COMPLETELY forgot- I have a dance recital this afternoon and I’m so nervous about it” (and she may have had a sprain or an injury as well).


LIzzy and I go WILD- completely blown away that we went from someone’s hamburger dinner to someone else’s very personal and very relevant experience. I was ecstatic that God didn’t disappoint. That we trusted that God was speaking through the word “hamburger” and kept asking God. “Okay. What else?”


This experience happens every single Sunday with the prayer team. Many times the team will get a wild hunch and we name it without discounting that it could be our own imagination, or psyches, or any number of things affecting us. We just voice what we get and our group mulls it over in their minds, we talk about it, we ask Holy Spirit to help us make meaning and develop this concept/word or drop it. One time one of us got 4 specific numbers that we shared up front. It ended up being a significant date for a few people, and it was someone’s pin number to their bank account…


We are constantly amazed at what appears like something our imaginations created, but turns into something significant for one of us sitting in service that day. And this team does not hear or read the sermon message before the service- so any parallel prayer words that we share after the sermon is given,  we confidently believe that if it’s meaningful to someone sitting in service, that maybe God indeed is trying to get someone’s attention.


STEVE – Those are fun stories, even as they’re still kind of weird, which is what I guess we’d expect from experiences that are entirely us, but filled with something or someone spiritual outside of us as well, right? That our experience would be normal you and me, but with this weird extra truth or hope or presence that seems sort of more and better than what we’ve got just by ourselves.


But I have to say that for me this also begs the question of what God sounds like, what the voice of God is or isn’t, right? As we try to learn to listen to God, what can we chalk up to God, and what to toxic or unhelpful or false ideas of God. Or what’s just our own weird thoughts, all the garbage out there in the media, in the air, in society… And I think Jesus had hope that we’d have a sense for what God sounds like, that we’d learn that God sounds like Jesus…  There’s this bit in the gospel of John:


John 10:4,14-15 (CEB)

4 Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.

14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me,15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep.


STEVE: So Jesus has this analogy, that sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Like dogs know the voice of their owner, it’s apparently a thing. And he’s like that’s how it is with God, you really can recognize the voice of God. It sounds like me.


And for me, through years of this strange but beautiful thing of trying to cultivate a friendship with Jesus, this has become more and more real to me. Where I sit in silence, often thinking about the circumstances of my life – highs or lows – and ask Jesus where Jesus is in all this or if there is anything Jesus has to say to me. My experience of God has been really shaped by the gentle, provocative voice of Jesus. I’ve never read about any person in history or literature that is as deeply gentle and provocative as the Jesus of the four gospels. And the God I experience in friendship as I pray is like this too – asking me great questions, turning my proclivity to avoidance back on me by asking, “What do you think? What do you want, Steve?” This Jesus who speaks to me, the Jesus in my head or heart, the Jesus of my imagination, is just really gentle and more surprisingly true and surprisingly encouraging than I’ve tended to expect of God.


And – you’ll notice – I say the Jesus of history and the Jesus with me and the Jesus of my imagining all interchangeably, not because I don’t think Jesus is real, but because of this whole incarnation thing – that any experience of God we can have is both fully human and fully divine – totally of God and totally of me, so I don’t spend a lot of thought or worry on what parts I’m just imagining and what parts an external God is bringing to me from without, as long as it sounds like Jesus.


So that’s like a micro-taste of my own experience of God speaking to me.


But then sometimes, we want to listen to God when we want to help/pray for others. How does that work for you and for our prayer team, Michaiah?



Sure, now the practice of praying for others- begins first with the understanding that it’s not about the prayer team members prayers- this takes all the pressure off of our performance or perfectly making anything happen. As prayer ministers we are simply companions to the person asking for prayer and entering together into the presence of God, allowing ourselves to be loved by God- We are part of the equation, but really, it’s about the other person being able to experience God’s sweet and holy presence for themselves.


We normally invite the presence of God to come, and we wait expectantly.

God’s presence may come through a person’s thoughts, a memory or situation, physically, through a song, a phrase…….

In prayer team we try to be as invisible as possible so that whoever is receiving prayer can get what they need from God.


Now, sometimes praying for people requires a companion that intercedes on your behalf with God- joining the other person’s faith, or their hope, and praying to that effect.


Sometimes praying for people might jog a thought that we’ll share with the other person to see if it has any significance for the other person. But our prayer ministry trains with the understanding that the recipient is the final authority, or judge of the word. And as prayer team- we’re fine with that. We could be wrong with what we’re sensing.


Steve: One time, Michaiah, I was meeting with a person who’d visited our church a few times and loved it, but he asked me, “Steve, what’s with the body parts?” And I was like: “Um, no idea what you’re talking about.” And he said, “You know, every week, you say a couple of body parts that someone wants to pray for.” So I told him my answer, Michaiah, but what’s yours? What’s with the body parts?



HA! Well somewhere along my tenure on church staff, a coworker suggested a great way to generate faith in God is if we prayed and asked God for physical things that God wanted to bring attention to in order to heal or bring a message of love or freedom to in some way. So on prayer team we ask God if there are any body parts that God wants to heal, so that person will respond.


Steve: That’s great. And I know many of us have been encouraged by healing prayer for our emotions but also for our bodies. I was really helped too by the comments my friend Laurie made earlier this year when she and I gave a sermon on Disability and Grace. Laurie, who has lived with a life-long physical disability and also prayed with many people with physical disabilities, said that for some of us healing may involve changes to our physical condition, while others experience healing as God helps bring peace and acceptance to our physical limits and brokenness. That was really helpful for me.  


Now as we wrap up, I guess I’ll share a final word and we’ll do a couple quick next steps.


I guess I make of all this that being open to a communicative God, a God who can teach us to listen and experience if we pay attention, a God who pours out the Spirit generously on all people, this is both really weird and an enormous gift. And everything we’re going to experience of God in this life is going to be both fully human – very much of us – and fully divine – very much of a real God, we trust as well.


So it reminds me that it’s worth being attentive and serious and interested in what we can taste and see of a living God while holding it all in good humility and good humor as well. There was a time when wanting to hear or experience God more was clouded by all kinds of anxiety for me – what if it doesn’t happen? What if someone else experience more? And what if I’m wrong when I think God’s saying or doing something? And now it’s more like: hey, there’s no such thing as getting this all right. It’s just that my good and sweet God is open to being a parent and a friend to us and encouraging and leading us into more and more life. We’ve got two final tips to go after this, but first Michaiah, tell us about an offering you have for people that want to learn more.


Michaiah: You can come to a Spirit and Power Class on Sunday, June 23rd right after the 10:30am service. We’ll go into depth on hearing the voice of God for others and praying for healing both physically and emotionally. We’ll offer the entire class again in the Fall- so if you’re interested write a note on your welcome card.

Great, and now our closing tips.


Most of humans, for most of human history, have considered this earth to be a god-soaked world, where the divine can be present to us in many places and many ways, and where questions of meaning and mattering and significance are a joyful and special part of what it means to be alive. So, this week, for our whole life flourishing tip, consider this question:

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

What is Jesus gently speaking to me through my life, world, and circumstances?



The purpose of this suggested practice is on intention and expectation.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Set aside time for a 1-on-1 with God. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide the time. Where will you go, what will you do together? Tell someone you trust about it. See if you can find more times to be generous to yourself and be with God.

Prophetic Living: Prophet Hosea

Good morning. We’re in a series called Prophetic Living and I’ll share from one of the prophets in the Bible, a book called Hosea. A quick Bible overview. Old Testament is made up for 39 books. It’s really a library rather than one book. It’s ordered loosely according to genre, Genesis being the origin accounts, then some law texts, and then we’ve got some history books, then some poetry which is often called wisdom books, like the psalms and proverbs, and then the rest are the Prophets. There are “major” prophets and “minor” prophets, not because Isaiah was so majorly cool but cause the book is long. Hosea is one of the minor prophets. 14 chapters. A quick tell-it-like-it-is. When I finally read this book in seminary, cause I never once read it before then although I grew up Christian, I was floored by the content, and since then have always wanted to preach on it. So when we decided to do a series on Prophetic Living, I was like, this is my time! To talk about a very weird book!

It’s a book that isn’t often mentioned in Sunday School, you’ll see why. And you know what, prophetic living can be kind of weird, as we’ve heard about that other Prophet Ezekiel past few weeks. He weird for sure. And that’s an aspect of prophetic living, kind of weird, out of the box. It can sometimes look very different from what’s normally accepted. And I think that’s kind of cool.


So let me read the text for us and see what this peculiar book might have, anything, to say to us today.


Hosea 1:2-11

2 When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” 3 So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

4 Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. 5 In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.”

6 Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “not loved”), for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them. 7 Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.”

8 After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. 9 Then the Lord said, “Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God.[b]

10 “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’ 11 The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.[c]


You see why we don’t read this in Sunday School. Go marry a promiscuous woman. And in fact, there are a lot of parts of the Bible we don’t read for kids, but for adults either. I mean, talk about biblical marriage, there’s this one, and Abraham with his wife Sarah and Hagar the maidservant who bore him a son. And many other marriages in the Bible that is FAR from our culture and tradition, or norms of our days, or even their days frankly.


So let me say a few things right off the bat about this text. First of all, it’s a story and it’s a metaphor. It’s set in a time long ago with ancient cultural context. It’s also provocative. So I just want to say that, if any of this is triggering or offensive to you for any reason, a difficult topic, please feel free to step out and take care of yourself. You know your needs best. And also maybe try to allow the metaphor, locked in its particular time, to pass through to unearth the meaning behind the metaphor. We ARE going to do some initial critique of the genre, and that is a PART of reading Bible texts with integrity. So, let’s give ourselves, both me and yourself some grace and mercy through this process of discovering an ancient text. I’m going to take us through the thinking process of this text, so it’ll take us a few detours to get to the core message of Hosea. Stay with me, this is the good work of delving into the text and doing it justice. Like a love confession letter(or email) from your crush, you don’t just read it once and get it, you study every word and layers in meaning! I’ll talk about the metaphor, the problem that the metaphor is referring to, and Hosea’s hope and vision. The metaphor, the problem, and the hope


So, the metaphor. The medium sometimes is not the message. The metaphor is that Hosea is to marry a promiscuous woman to illustrate God’s loving relationship with the unfaithful Kingdom of Israel. It’s meant it to be provocative. Sometimes prophetic messages come off kind of blunt and out there.  It’s also an ancient setting in which cultural understanding of marriage, covenant relationship, and gender roles are set in a specific society, different from our own, most likely a patriarchal one, meaning one where the male gender has power and female doesn’t. And so to allude God as the loving husband and the unfaithful Israel to an adulterous wife, such metaphor is comprehensible language and even effective. Partly because the meant audience for the writing was for men, the powers of the Israel who was leading the country astray. But for us, those who get to eavesdrop on the conversation between prophet Hosea and the people of Israel set in 8th century BCE, there are many things that we have different assumptions and standards about. For one thing, the ancient metaphor doesn’t take into account the harm in always aligning the Divine/God with “he” pronoun and the nation, the human beings, or the wrong ones as “she”. I believe the message of Hosea can withstand modern feminist critique, to not only see the simple metaphor, but we must be able to see THROUGH the metaphor, and be able to critique the medium that has caused harm in seeing the female gender as the tainted one and male as the saviors. The text itself is more rich and complex than that. We should not take it at face value and give it the time and effort to do some digging.


Here’s a way to look at it. The prophet writings were a certain GENRE of writing. It’s part autobiographical, historical, interweaved with conversations of God with the prophet, and the prophet with the people. We HAVE to keep the GENRE in mind, because when we are not aware of the specific genre, we totally miss the message. For example, [SLIDE] The Onion is a news source that is meant to be a satire. They report on things like, “Man To Undergo Extensive Interrogation By Coworkers About Where He Got Falafel” with quotes like, ““It’s only a matter of moments before they’re surrounding my desk, ordering me to tell them everything I know about how long the line was and cross-examining me about what other dishes were available.” It’s random. It’s funny. But if you didn’t know the genre, you’d be like, that’s news? Knowing the genre is important when reading something on the internet. It’s also important when reading the Bible. Whenever you read the Bible, ask yourself, what’s the genre here?


The prophet writings are a specific kind of writing. It wasn’t written to give you marriage advice. It’s a metaphor. This sermon isn’t telling you who to marry. Please don’t take the Bible literally like that. In fact, on that note, let me say for the record, sometimes churches often provide people with cultural or moral or ethical standards as a biblical teaching or Christian tenet, and what the Prophets show us, is God’s plan is bigger than human plans. Like this story. Marrying a promiscuous woman, I’m sure would not have been a godly advice to young men in their temple. Marriage is so deeply interwoven with cultural expectations of its time and place.


Here’s an example. Marriage expectations is the bread and butter of Korean dramas. They’re a bit like american soap opera or telenovela, but it’s like this whole genre called Korean dramas. It’s actually huge in asia, my chinese mother in laws knows Korean phrases from watching them, and you can even find them on netflix. Usual story goes like this. A girl and boy somehow falls in love. But there’s a problem. The boy is from a poor family, or the girl grew up without parents and she’s an orphan, or the boy is younger, oh no!, or the girl has a career, she can’t have babies! And the families just lose it when they find out they’re dating, they try to pay each other off to break up, and humiliate their boyfriend or girlfriend. Drama.


The beginning of this text says that God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute. (side note, the specific word translated is actually not prostitute more accurately, promiscuous, although many bible translate it so because the metaphor of Israel being a prostitute is definitely there, but the word prostitute is never actually connected to the wife. clarity.) And name his children, Lo-ruhamah–’Not Loved’ and Lo-ammi–’Not My People’. That must’ve been hard names for them to live with! And the rest of the book is series of conversation between God and Hosea, and Hosea to his wife, and God to the people of Israel, and Hosea to the people as the prophet, and it is often confusing who’s saying what to whom. This is often the case in all of the Prophet books. It’s part autobiography, part oracle, part preaching, mixed in with their personal conversation, and feelings, with God and then it being God’s mouthpiece and intention. It’s unclear. But that’s often how life is sometimes right? God speaking through our lives, sometimes in moments of such clarity, God said this, and sometimes in the muddy mix of of our emotions, Is this how God feels? We ask ourselves this as we move about our days, God what are you trying to show me. How are you using me and my life to be a witness. What good story of yours are you telling through my life?


So the metaphor was his own personal story and experience, his marriage, his children. And it’s being used to illustrate the problem. So what is the problem? The rest of the book, Hosea expands on this marriage metaphor to call out the people of Israel. It’s an autobiographical social commentary. So what was happening?


Little history. It’s late 8th century BCE. Around 930 BCE the united monarchy has split into two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. I feel like I’m explaining Game of Thrones right now, “king of the north!” but actually it’s kind of helpful in imagining it in that genre. Hosea, though it doesn’t say clearly in the text, is probably from the north from the way he talks about all the narratives that were popular in the north and mentioning of mostly northern cities. During the 8th century the Israel and Judah were experiencing some booming of economy and flourishing unlike any other time in their history. They had political stability and independence, partly due to neighboring super powers like the Assyrians, who had been colonizing surrounding nations, were kind of taking a break with their own problems like disease outbreak and such. And in fact, Israel and Judah were expanding and colonizing their neighbors with this newfound strength and stability. And with imperialism, colonizing, they enjoyed more trade, goods, which then bore more hunger for power and exploitation of foreigners and peasants. And then surplus of power that began to tip over to greed causing greater disparity among the rich and the poor. This is common history, right? A history of most nations and powers, the rise and fall, the struggle of the rich and the poor.


What we know is that very soon, a little later, in 722 BCE, all this goes down the drain, with the great fall of Samaria, the capital of Northern Kingdom of Israel. Assyria gets over disease outbreaks and starts destroying their neighboring cities again. We know this through other sources and the Bible. And Hosea lived just before that, and didn’t know this. But, he saw it coming. I think that’s why we allude the word Prophets to those who foretell, but it’s not just that, it’s actually more like those who really have a keen sense of the current state of the nation that they can “predict” what’s going to happen to the country. There were economists who saw the housing market crash of 2008, but we don’t call them prophets. But they knew. They saw it coming. And Hosea, saw the destruction of Israel coming and used it to warn the people to turn their ways.


He masterfully interweaves his conversations with his wife, the anger, the struggle, the feeling of betrayal, to illustrate God’s disapproval of Israel’s actions. Some, I wonder if they were God’s venting, or his own. They are pretty harsh words. And like a good Korean drama or an epic HBO show, things are well, let me read a few lines. Chapter 2, “I will leave her to die of thirst as in a dry and barren wilderness. I will not love her children… I will strip her naked in public… no one will be able to rescue her from my hands…” DRAMA. This is kind of why I stopped watching Game of Thrones in season 3, cause it’s like too much violence and rape, like why. And this is also why some people stop reading the Bible cause too much violence and rape and genocide. You know, human history. It’s ugly. And it’s a literary artistic choice too though. Hosea goes back and forth from one chapter on God’s judgement and fury, to the next chapter, having said all that, End of Chapter 2, “but then I will win her back once again…speak tenderly to her….You will call me ‘husband’ instead of master” (Side note, fun fact! Husband is the metaphor being used in juxtaposition to Master, because the word Master, which is baal, is the same word used for the foreign god Baal. The one true God, loving husband, the false idol god, the taskmaster. It was a pun!)  And it does kind of make God sound bipolar. Maybe Hosea was bipolar, or I don’t know, he’s going through a lot right now you know? And it goes on like this pretty much rest of the book, utilizing other metaphors in addition to the marriage one like farming, religion, or parental. Chapter 4, “Israel is stubborn, like a stubborn heifer. So should the Lord feed her like a lamb in a lush pasture? No. Leave Israel alone.” Chapter 6, “I want you to show love or show mercy, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me, more than I want burnt offerings.” Chapter 11, “I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. But he doesn’t know or even care that it was I who took care of him. I led Israel along with my ropes of kindness and love, I lifted the yoke from his neck and I myself stooped to feed him.”


These metaphors are pointing out how Israel is breaking the covenant relationship with God, unfaithful and disobeying, saying that they are worshiping idols. Hint: It’s not just about religion. Especially in that time, the separation of religious and secular concerns were not as distinct. So, what is the offense to God? What does unfaithfulness to God look like? As he said in chapter 6, it’s not about the sacrifices or burnt offerings.


Chapter 5: “The court officials in Judah have become like removers of boundary landmarks; upon them I will pour out my fury like water.” Why was removing boundary landmarks such a crime? Cause it was about territory, property, and the court officials who determine them unjustly.


Chapter 9: “you love shares on every threshing floor of grain. Threshing floor and wine vats shall not benefit them, and the new wine shall fail them. They shall not sit in possession in the land of Yahweh; but they shall return to Egypt, and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food.”

It was about grain, agriculture, and wine, trade goods, and possession of land, and political ties to Egypt and Assyria the other superpowers that were also exploiting other nations.


Chapter 10: “since you trusted in your chariots and in the abundance of your warriors, an uproar shall rise amidst your cities, and all the fortifications shall be destroyed, like the destruction of Beth-arbel by Shalman on the day of battle” and this is really extreme, I’m sorry but it’s in the Bible, “mothers were dashed into pieces with children,”.  Chapter 13 has even worse that I don’t want to read. It was about military, about walls, about wars and murders of women and children.


Prophets studies scholar Rodney R. Hutton puts it this way, “To accuse Israel of religious infidelity was not simply a pedantic concern about correct religion. I was fundamentally a political concern about foreign alliances and the sort of pressures such alliances exerted on Israel’s core religious and social values…Hosea rehearses a long litany of social injustices, all of which result from the fact that, “there is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, lyding, killing, stealing, and committing adultery. They break all bounds and murder follows murder (in reference to the ten commandments) (4:1-2). Clearly, one cannot distinguish between religious and secular concerns, between matters of worshiping the correct god and worshiping God correctly. For Hosea the two go together and offenses again God have universal and cosmic effects: “Therefor the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air; and even the fish of the sea are taken away” (4:3).”


This was their sin. This was their rebellion against God. As is the case for all of the prophets. They were calling out for the repentance and turning away from their ways. Their ways of militaristic power expansion, land accumulation and exploitation of the poor. The marketplace. The economy. The politics. The unfair trades of good, about farming, about water, about children, about life.  To be devoted to God and to do justice is one of the same.


I briefly mentioned the Canaanite god of fertility earlier, Baal, who was also known as the Lord of Rain and Dew, one who provided the climate for abundance of crops. That’s why worshipping Baal was ‘falling in love’ with potential of grain, wine, oil, success, wealth, power. –This was Hosea’s warning and message to the people of Israel. So what. What does that matter to us? Only that, I don’t know if you noticed, but the possible parallels to our days of grasp for power and money.


Let’s bring it to conclusion. Having said all this, What is Hosea’s expectation or hope for the future of Israel? The hope. Having angrily vented to the people of Israel and dishing out judgements of what they deserve, what does God do? God says, in verse 7 of today’s text, “Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.” Assyrians are coming. And you think you need to get your power up. no, that’s not how you will save yourself. You won’t. I will save you. The back and forth of judgement and devotion, it always ends the same, I will bring you back. I will allure you. I will love. I will heal. I will do it. It is God who acts.


Prophets were a warning to the people. A moral ethical call to people. And one we should listen to, to the prophets of our days. But the ultimate message is the same. It’s not that you need to clean up your act, but I love you. I will show you my love that you can’t help but turn back to me no matter how far you’ve gone.


Hosea’s difficult marriage was what he was going through. He also was seeing the injustice of his nation. He was trying to make a sense of both, and through his life experience and his place in history, he felt, saw, sensed, and heard, not only God’s frustration (resonating with his own frustration with his wife and his country), but more so, God revealed to him love and compassion for him, and for his wife and for his people.


How is God showing God’s love through a difficult time in your life? This one was through his marriage. And some hold up that metaphor to be the ultimate experience of God’s holy love. But a good marriage is not the only example of God’s goodness. This example is an example of a failed marriage. A marriage that would’ve brought shame to Hosea and his family. God used shame and turned it upside down saying, even there, I will work. I will reveal. And I think of our modern days. That marital status has actually been a source of much shame for so many people and our generation. Those who are in difficult marriages. Those who are at the brink of marriages falling apart. Those who have been married before but no longer. Those who seek to be married but haven’t found one. Those who have no interest in marriage. If God used Hosea’s marital status as an illustration of God’s love, I wonder, how could God use EACH of our marital status, married, single, divorced, seperated, widowed, choose to not marry, etc, in all various stories and states of our lives, that might be seen as unconventional. how does God use the drama of your life, to reveal God’s faithful love?


I was a part of a conference in Los Angeles, while I was traveling last few weeks, where they had a panel of LGBTQIA+ stories. the story that stood out to me was the person identifying as asexual whose pronouns were they/them/their, meaning that they prefer to not be called she or he gender. They started to explain a little bit about their identity and life as an asexual person. They said, “please don’t say things like, “the friend zone” or “only friends” because it demeans friendship relationship,” because that’s mainly what kind of relationship they live on because they are not interested in romantic ones. They said, “people who are in traditional families with children, and please don’t call that NORMAL, be inclusive of people who are not married into your family.” As they shared, they kind of drew this picture of deep community that isn’t bound by nucleus families but a bond and connection that goes beyond culturally accepted familial lines. They were paining a picture of a kind of a church that I’d envision. A kind of heaven.


Cultural NORMS have wedged people into lives or expectation of lives that they can’t live upto or want to live up to. Hosea marrying a promiscuous woman was provocative and yet the whole book was actually trying to portray the deep love and beauty of such marriage that ended up this way unfortunately, and yet, this is the reality as is and love covers it. I know that people feel shame for being single, older and single. I know that as a married person I have a certain privilege that keeps me blind to their experiences. I know a little cause I got married mid 30’s, GASP so late. But GASP’s are the stuff of God’s toolbox that God paints the most beautiful pictures with.


Prophetic living can be counterintuitive because sometimes what looks like failure to men is glory in God. 1 Cor 1:27 says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” As seen on the cross by Jesus. What seeming “failures” in your life is God using to show God’s love for you? And how can we honor such stories that might been unordinary, out of the box, out of tradition, out of the norm, maybe even provocative, for some even offensive, to see those stories as God’s stories of God’s good and faithful love being played out through their lives? Can we? May we live that provocative prophetic lives boldly, knowing that in it and through all stories, God is faithful, God is loving, God chases after us and wants to make us whole, not despite of but THROUGH that very story. Maye it be so. Amen.





The World-Saving Power of Inner Work

We’re about half way through our spring series on prophetic living, where we look at the lives and words of some of the great ancient prophets from the Bible and try to see what it looks like to live boldly, wholeheartedly as if what we hope to be true about God is real. So far we’ve talked about speaking encouragement and affirmation as people who are learning to love a God who speaks life to us. We’ve talked about looking for and magnifying deep, inner beauty as a way of honoring a beautiful God who loves shaping beautiful stories among us. And we’ve talked about learning to ask for help, in a world where a good God is glad to help us and to to shape communities of mutual help.

Maybe the most memorable thing I’ve heard so far, though, was Ivy’s description last week of prophets as people who burn stuff down and then die. I listened to Ivy quoting her kid about prophets as people who burn stuff down, and I thought – we like people these days who burn stuff down, don’t we?


Dramatic, angry people with a serious beef are in.


On both sides of the aisle, we’re voting more for politicians who promise to burn stuff down. And in that, the US isn’t taking the lead, but following something of a global trend. Demagogues who channel popular anger against a common enemy are in right now, in many places in the world. Burning it down is trending.


Even in fiction, we have Game of Thrones coming to a close tonight. I actually haven’t watched a single episode, but I read some of the books, and I ask my wife to give me all the spoilers now, and I gather that last week, even that universe chose to give us a leader who decides to burn it down.


At some level, this is in fact what prophets do. And it’s why we’re both drawn to them and also kind of frightened by them. Through the pages of the Bible’s great prophets, we get lots like this, from Amos, who spoke to the Northern half of ancient Israel, in the 8th century BC.


Amos 2:6-8 (CEB)

6    The Lord proclaims:

   For three crimes of Israel,

       and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment,

   because they have sold the innocent for silver,

           and those in need for a pair of sandals.

7     They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,

       and push the afflicted out of the way.

   Father and son have intercourse with the same young woman,

       degrading my holy name.

8     They stretch out beside every altar

       on garments taken in loan;

   in the house of their god they drink

       wine bought with fines they imposed.


Here are some of the many fiery words of the prophet Amos, saying not just, “Burn it down,” but God is gonna burn it down.


For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment. So which is it? Three or four? Just how many crimes?


That’s not the point. It’s a poetic device in Hebrew for a list – to say, there are so many things coming. Can we even count them all? It’s two, no three, no, maybe four – so many crimes. And not just crimes against law, but crimes against humanity, crimes against justice, crimes against decency.


Economic exploitation, sexual exploitation, religious practice that instead of coming to grips with these problems, just papers them over.


Amos calls out ot the nation and says: You are sick. And unless you change, unless you reckon with your sickness, you’re gonna get it.


Burn it down, Amos says. God doesn’t want to prop up a system, a country, a people full of sickness, full of injustice.


Now, we could imagine that ancient Israel was very different than any other nation, that somehow this small 8th century rural, tribal nation was a Game of Thrones-like land of unparalleled violence, abuse, greed, and corruption. But this strikes me as unlikely.


And a tremendous scholar of the prophets, Abraham Heschel, has a different way of understanding the prophets’ burn-it-down take on their society’s sickness.


I love the prophets, and knowing that, over 20 years ago, my wife Grace gifted me with a copy of Rabbi Heschel’s beautiful and important book The Prophets.  Early on, he’s asking what kind of people these prophets are. Why such burn-it-down intensity?


And he writes this:

“The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world…. The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” (The Prophets, Abraham Heschel, pgs. 3-4)


The prophets know that people matter – not just people in the collective, what can be captured by studies and statistics, but each person, each human being, even each living creature matters.


A single child born into a family of crushing debt is sold into bonded labor for a bit of silver, just enough to buy a pair of shoes. In our global politics or analysis, that’s a footnote. But to the prophets it is a disaster, a deathblow to existence.


A wealthy person enjoys a possession that is linked to the suffering of the dispossessed. In our age of global capitalism, this strikes me – I’ll be honest – as inevitable. What Heschel calls an episode. But to the prophets it is a catastrophe, a threat to the world.


Prophets burn with fiery passion because they know that each person matters to God, and because they tell the truth as well.


Prophets see sickness everywhere. They see it in their public economy. And they see it in the places where the so-called public and the so-called private meet. There’s that vivid line in Amos about the father and son, and the same young woman. This is sexual abuse. This is rape, that Amos is decrying. In his context, this would have been a teenage family servant, hired for poverty-wages, or perhaps living in slavery. No rights, no status, no recourse, and so she’s used by other people, just as people today without rights, status, and recourse get used by the rest of us.


Prophets tell the truth, and so Amos says his nation is sick. And sick things that don’t get healthy die.


Often, though, prophets make people angry before they make them healthy, because people don’t always like the truth very much, right?


Through our partnerships team, that gives out 10% of our church’s tithes and offerings, our church supports International Justice Mission – the world’s largest anti-slavery organization. And their founder, Gary Haugen, often says that people who perpetrate violent injustice have two tools really – violence and deceit. Oppressors use force, and they lie. Which is why IJM mobilizes and equips better, public force through rule of law, and why IJM documents and tells the truth. Because to get justice, we need truth.  


Last Thursday, in our community organizing class at Reservoir, we were learning about different ways to gain people’s consent to change. We talked about how violent force is some ways the weakest means of consent, because as soon as the threat or power of violence is removed, no consent. And we talked about how strong relationships are the most powerful means of consent, because we want to live and work and make agreements together with those we love and respect.


But we had some debate about lies and manipulation, which in our training was labeled slanted information. Because we agreed that we we’ve seen a precious lack of truth-telling in our education, in our politics, in so much of our public discourse, and we felt that many of our public habits of deceit and manipulation have been a toxic and potent force for ill in our public lives.


So prophetic living believes in the healing power of telling the truth.


When I was younger, I’d read stuff like this and cheer. Stuff it to them, Amos. Speak truth to power! We like the angry truth when people tell say it about our enemies.


But over time, I realized what should have been obvious all along. The prophets of the Bible aren’t primarily criticizing their foes, they’re speaking truth about themselves. They’re diagnosing the sickness in their own nation, among their own people, in their own communities.


It’s hard to hear the truth about ourselves. It’s hard to grapple with the truth about our lives.


This week I learned a phrase I’d never known about a dynamic that has long troubled me. The phrase is “spiritual bypassing.” I read about it in on a blog from a rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, and it turns out there’s a whole body of work on this.


Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism where you use spirituality to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. A spiritual community is troubled by an accusation of abuse, and if they cover it up or try to rush people toward healing before reckoning, that’s spiritual bypassing. People that have a hard time with anger or conflict or suffering and use religion to avoid or explain these things away, that’s spiritual bypassing too.


I don’t know about you, but there’s a fair bit of this in my spiritual and religious past. Big pushes toward forgiveness, healing, the power of faith to make all things better before really reckoning with what’s gone wrong. Too many of our so-called faith leaders are people who don’t like to reckon with their own mistakes and pain. And too many of us have rushed past hard truths in our experience, truth that needs reckoning and rumbling before it can change.


I think this is part of why my therapist last year was go goofy, over the top, encouraging, whenever she saw me compassionately reckoning with truth about myself. I’d tell her a story about the littlest thing, about being stuck in some way – but instead of distracting myself or pretending I could change it, asking someone I love for help. Or I’d talk about someone I love or respect speaking their truth in a way that was hard for me to hear, and just trying to sit with that, to stay engaged, and really be present, and she’d be like: Steve, this is so great – you’re saving the world!


And I’d be like you’re crazy, I’m not doing anything. Maybe like marginally moving toward sitting with the truth about myself and those I love with compassion. A little bit of inner work.


And she’d say: I know. But that’s where change comes from. People seeing and reckoning with the truth, and doing the inner work to sit with that without judgement. That’s where connection and curiosity and compassion and so many other good things are born, things that as they scale do amazing things.


Jesus, in his prophetic living, said this too. Near the end of the most powerful collection of his prophetic words – what’s called the Sermon on the Mount in the good news of Matthew – Jesus says,


“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.3 Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? 5 You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.


Jesus tells us to use truth the way we want it used on us – generously, fairly, compassionately. And he says if you want to be a truth teller, if you want to live prophetically, make sure you’re doing your own inner work.


Jesus turns the “burn it down spirit” inward. To use another cryptic phrase of Jesus, salt yourself with fire. Let holy truth do its work in you. Commit to the kind of inner it takes to be be healthy.


This is where real prophets are different. Prophets don’t just go around burning other people’s stuff down, they don’t just call out truth about others. Prophetic living welcomes the truth about ourselves and our own groups and loyalties. Prophetic truth welcomes the gentle fire of change where things are not well within ourselves.


Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we can only tell the truth about ourselves. And I am not saying that all public anger is judgmental or uncalled for. I heard Rev. Lucas Johnson talking about this just this week. Johnson is a community organizer and pastor and now the executive director of On Being’s Civil Conversations project.


He talked about the criticism leveled at Michael Brown’s stepfather who screamed out “Burn it down!”, after the acquittal verdict of the officer who killed his son, after revelations of years of systemic violent racism in that city’s law enforcement. And he asked: what’s more dangerous? What’s more inhumane? The destruction of property, or the mass incarceration and violence toward my people. Johnson was like, that Burn it down impulse carries truth. He said most of us don’t wrestle enough with the real grief and anger that is natural to feel in the face of injustice.


But then Johnson said: “This is where my spiritual practice comes in, where I have to find another way of accepting and dealing with grief.” What he’s saying is that even righteous indignation isn’t potent and it isn’t safe without inner work.


When Jesus reckons with this old prophetic territory of truth-telling and righteousness, he insists upon this inner work. Take the log out of your eye. Be healthy. Let truth change who we are, and see what change and power flows from that.


Jesus begins this Sermon on the Mount material that moves toward judgment and logs with other words, long words about inner work. Citing the great 10 commandments about health and righteousness, he intensifies their truth-telling force, and turns them toward inner work, not just public compliance .


Matthew 5:21-26 (CEB)

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.


Jesus knows that in our public and private relationships, a lot of us are prone to this violent, so-called “truth telling” about everyone but ourselves. We’re defensive, we’re reactive, we get fired up angry. All of which is human. Parts of which are even healthy. Not to mince words, but Jesus says when you’re angry with brother or sister, you’ll be in danger of judgement. The anger itself doesn’t put you in a bad place, it puts you in a risky place.


When that anger is channeled toward making things right, making things right in regards to those who have done us wrong, making things right when we realize we’ve done wrong, that can be a constructive, healthy force. But when that anger turns toward contempt, judgment, violence, it turns dangerous and toxic for everyone around us, and for ourselves.


Jesus asks us how are we in ourselves with other people? Are we mostly defensive and reactive in our anger? Or are we mostly self-aware, present, and  giving energy to the making of peace?

Last week our staff team at Reservoir were talking about the many amazing stories of great things happening in this community of Reservoir Church – all the stories of the love of God, the joy of living, and the gift of community. And then we got talking about some of the big forces in the world, stuff way beyond our control, that threatens our community, that threatens Reservoir’s mission and flourishing. And one of the things we talked about was the reactive world we live in, love of burning it down in our times, and the difficulty many of us are having living in peace and making it right with people that can provoke our anger. That’s real, I’m not judging that challenge we’re facing. But it’s tough. That we live in times of awareness of deep, systemic, painful injustice. And we live in times where it can be difficult to relate constructively with people who see the world differently than we do.


And in the context of this discussion, in the context of this work on the prophetic living of truth-telling, including about ourselves, and the prophetic living of inner work, I saw a quotation in the social media of another person our church partners with. He’d posted this line: “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.”


I saw with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.


I found that powerful. And I was thinking about where a lot of anger comes from, thinking – given that I’m a man – about a lot of male anger too. Now, hang with me here. I’m not harshing on men. You may be aware: I am a man, and proudly and securely so. And women, or people who don’t find gendered conversation helpful, I hope you can hang with me for a minute here, and consider what’s helpful for you.


But I am that factually, most of the world’s domestic violence, most of the world’s sexual violence has its roots in male anger. Most of the world’s violence, period, is connected to the anger of men. The priest, Father Richard Rohr, has often written and talked about how so many difficulties we have relating to God – all of us – have to do with our experience of angry or emotionally shut down fathers and father figures.


And I’ve thought about how much male anger comes from unrecognized, undealt with shame.


I had my own experience of this the other day. I was biking through Harvard Square, and there was weird and messy road construction going on, as there is everywhere, all the time around here in the spring. And it was kind of confusing to me where I could safely proceed on my bike, and there was no traffic coming the other direction, and for a minute, I rode on the wrong side of these orange pylons that made the new, improvised center of the lane.


And after I had already found my way back to the right edge of the road, I biked past the police officer on traffic duty who yelled at me, forcibly, about where and how I should be riding my bike. And out of habit, I said something like: Thank you, I got it.


But within seconds, I felt this incredible anger starting to boil in me. Some part of me felt violated at being yelled at. I was growing really defensive about how dangerous that bit of road was, how often I’m on the edge of being hit by a car in situations like that.


There was certainly no part of me that had compassion on how stressful that officer’s day was, directing bad drivers and bad cyclists like me, and bad pedestrians around a dangerous stretch of road, in a dangerous job that he has. There was certainly no part of me that could welcome the correction I’d been given, and turn that toward the reinforcement of safer cycling habits.


I was starting to boil. But maybe because this talk was on my mind, maybe because I try to practice daily inner work with Jesus, another thought came into my consciousness, and that thought was that I was ashamed of myself. I was ashamed that I had been caught doing something wrong, however small, and ashamed that meant that a man had yelled me. I realized some part of me was still there that was ashamed by the times my dad had yelled at me when I was a kid, even when I was a young man. Some part of me was still ashamed by times other people – teachers, bosses – had yelled at me or criticized me.


And still on my bike, only half a mile, just a couple of minutes from the birth of my anger, I started asking a different question. I started asking: what can I do with this shame, that’s making me so reactive right now?


And I thought: a living, loving God is not and has never, ever been ashamed of me. The God I’m coming to know in the person of Jesus Christ is never ashamed of me, is always compassionate and kind with me, even in my weaknesses. And I thought: I may have made a mistake back there, but I don’t need to be ashamed. And things starting getting clearer.


Which was important for me, not just because I didn’t want to carry rage or contempt over that little interaction in traffic. But because I had an important day ahead of me. All our days are important. I had a difficult conversation ahead that day, it turned out, and I wanted to be present and compassionate with the truth of that conversation, not reactive.


Men in the room in particular, there is powerful life in examining any places where unrecognized, undealt-with shame fuels our anger. Let me know if that strikes you and you want to talk more about that. This feels important to me.


And all of us, to accompany our anger, and our reactivity, with an inner work that just asks: where is this coming from? And what do I want to do with it? That’s powerful stuff. That’s prophetic living, to be compassionate truth tellers to ourselves.


Jesus goes on from anger, to also talk about desire on the same terms. And I think it’s interesting that Jesus really hones in on misdirected, or toxic anger and desire. Because toxic anger and toxic desire are at the root of all kinds of bad in the world. Or put positively, a therapist whose work I follow, Dan Allender, says it is a dangerous person for good who doesn’t lust after power or people.


That kind of freedom from toxic anger and toxic desire – especially for power and people – is a good kind of dangerous.

But hey, inner work wherever you find your life can go off course, is sweet prophetic living that Jesus would commend. I heard a Buddhist teacher the other day saying that the Buddha taught that there were five types of people. Five ways that we tend to be reactive in the world.


There are people prone to anger.


There are people prone to worry.


There are people who lose heart, and are prone to discouragement.


There are people are always looking to blame somebody, especially themselves.  


And there are people who need sensual soothing – food, sex, whatever

stimulates us.


Five fallback modes of reactivity – not evil, not something to judge ourselves over, but something to be aware of, a truth that invites inner work.


Does that resonate with you? Do you often find yourself in one of these 5 fall-back reactive modes?


Angry, worried, disheartened, blaming, or looking for sensual soothing?


I found that very self-aware, very consistent with Jesus’ prophetic teaching about inner work, about compassionate truth-telling that starts with us.


Just as our inner life can profoundly guide us off course, the human spirit and the Spirit of God can, through truth telling, bring profound, growing health to our inner lives.


My inner work is deeply rooted in spirituality of the Christian faith that I love. I think of my spiritual practice as my best set of weapons in the world, the roots of anything good and just and valuable that I become and that I do. For me, that involves particular weekly rhythms of rest and learning. It involves my participation in this faith community. It involves trying to cultivate honest friendships, and an honest prayer life, where I speak the truths of my life to Jesus and welcome Jesus’ compassionate, encouraging, truth-telling to me.


Other people I know have had seasons of inner work that focus on mindfulness – practicing more awareness in the moment. Others have really focus on emotional literacy, emotional awareness in particular.


Today’s talk isn’t on the mechanics of inner work, and spiritual practice so much, though, as on the prophetic living of telling the truth to ourselves, and making sure we find a set of practices of inner work.

What is your practice? Where, when, and how do you do your inner work to become less reactive in yourself, less reactive in the world?


As my therapist said, this is not just a matter of private piety, but of saving ourselves, and saving the world.


The Talmud, in the Jewish tradition says: Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.


Echoing this wisdom, the Islamic Quran says:

“We ordained … that if anyone killed a person or spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.”


Jesus says: take the log out your eye, make things right. Welcome God to grow health, good fruit within – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.


Then even your anger, even your truth-telling, will be safe and good.



Shift the beginning of this to LOVE and TRUTH…

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Fuel up in the morning with love, and look for who and what in your community and work is in your power to heal, build up, and make right.


Spiritual Practice of the Week

Get to know your default reactivity. If you don’t have an inner work practice, ask someone you respect what theirs is.

Breaking Code and Asking for Help

Good Morning!  What a joy and honor it is to be here with you, together this morning. I’m Ivy and with nervous delight I’m excited to share some thoughts with you this morning, around this series that we are in right now, called Prophetic Living.

I was talking with one of my kids about this idea of prophetic living this week— what does prophetic living actually mean?  It was a conversation more for me than a quiz to my child! And some point in our conversation, I rolled prophetic living back a bit to focus on what a prophet is. What can we notice about people we regard as prophets?  Their characteristics? What they did? And my child said, “Oh yah, prophets are people who light things on fire and then die.”

I laughed and thought about the truth and accuracy in that statement.

And the story of perhaps the craziest of prophets, Ezekiel, came to mind. One of the many odd and strange things he did was when he used a sword to shave off his beard, dividing his hairs into thirds. He set one third on fire. He scattered another third around the city and stabbed it with his sword. He threw the remaining third into the wind. And then Ezekiel took the few hairs he saved and sewed them into his clothing—burning some of those hairs too—and a fire will spread to all of Israel. (Ezekiel 5).

This was a wild, ridiculous move of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was trained in the Jewish priesthood and Jewish priests were commanded by God not to shave their heads, as the pagan priests did.  And so for Ezekiel this was not only a bold, counter-cultural move, but one that symbolized the truth of how God would move—how he was going to preserve part of Israel as his chosen people.

I just think—wow! Prophetic living, there you go. And I look out at all of you guys with beards and I think—I don’t know? Who’s to say that picture of prophetic living is completely off the table?  Maybe on your way home today, you should stop and pick up a sword somewhere!

Really though, Ezekiel’s crazy move aside, I think there is something to this sentiment of prophetic living—being a way of living that sets things ablaze, that may cause a combustion of our hearts and our lives, in a way that makes way for new miracles of rebirth and of new creation that God is doing right in front of us?  And how do we get to be a part of that?  How do we get to tap into what God is doing here and now, and step out with imagination, with action, embodying a new reality for ourselves and the people around us and for the next generation?

I’ve been a part of an experience here in our community, just as of late called Unpack. It’s a place created for people who have been particularly hurt and wounded by the church and who are seeking a spot of safety to let these truths hit the air.  We spent 6 weeks doing just that—letting the  truth of pain and the truth of one’s story, full of emotions and doubt, hit the air in the hopes that the power that hurt had would be released in that holy space of speaking truth with others . The only agenda we had was to not have an agenda—to create safe space without judgement, without a need to FIX or resolve, or to rescue. And the last week we all engaged in a burning ceremony.

I invited everyone to call out and write down the lies that had woven into their stories—about who they should be, or who God should be to them… And then also asked everyone to call out and write down a hope, a value—something they still believed could be true, even if they couldn’t see it as a present reality, but could name it as something they didn’t want to let go of or  sacrifice as they moved forward to the days to come.

And then we burned it all.

And I thought, my gosh, no one is shaving their beards over here, but these people are fearless truth-tellers (that calls out lies), and fearless hopers, calling out a reality that might not be present, but still dreaming for better—and is this not prophetic voice? Prophetic living in the making.

This voice is within all of us—and it comes from within the landscape of following Jesus, to believe that the good things we know of him – can be true, clung to and realized in our day. 

Prophetic living requires us to get to who we are, what we hold dear, what we care about. This directs how we move in the world, with passion and meaning. It requires us to start with this question like the one we posed at the top of the service: “what does a good day look like for you?” Because it teases out powerful information of what we value and what we don’t want to sacrifice in our lives.  It gets to the reasons that you are alive—why you stay in this life! And it sparks—sets ablaze—a courage in us that comes from that understanding of ourselves and God, to see this precious, unique combo as something that has been entrusted to us — who we are and who God truly is, to carry out prophetically.

Undoubtedly this prophetic living takes this kind of knowing and imagination and calls us to break code from our usual rhythms and patterns — to press against dominant culture and power — and calls us into places unknown, where comfort isn’t on the table, but wild, wacky words like “justice” or “peace” or “HELP” are.

To live prophetically, is to be a good, life-giving, disruptive force in the world around us, and this, my friends, will require us to call out this most prophetic word, “help” again and again along the way.

I want to explore this word “help” today in a way that empowers us to not lay us victims to the reality of the world around us, and empowers us to make a different way — to live more “good days” with our hearts and hopes intact, to an end that draws us deeper into the love and wisdom of God.

Stranded By The Side of the Road

I’ve been thinking a lot of what people are known for, not just remembered for after death, but what they might be known for now, while they are living.  I think of friends of mine who are currently known as authors, publishing their first books! I think of a friend who is known as CEO of a non-profit organization and who uses this platform to attend to the most marginalized in our city; another friend of mine who is known as a Dean of Justice, Equity and Transformation at a local college; other people in my life who are known to light any room on fire with hilarity and wit; and others known for the seering, KIND, attention that they give to anyone who is in front of them, strangers and friends alike.

I’m proud to say, that among some friends and family I am known for running my car’s gas tank to empty  as often as possible and gloat in the triumph of coming out victorious all of the time!image of two empty gas tank meters. Text: There are two types of people in the world. Left: We'll be fine. Right: We're almost out of gas."

That’s me on the left — “we are totally fine.” Actually I still think looking at this, why is this even an image, there’s easily ¼ of a tank of gas left—that’s not cause for alarm! Wait at least til the indicator is below the E!

But anyway I’ve had this life-long record of never running out of gas.

Until of course, I did.

This December, on a bitter, cold Sunday morning, I was driving here (to Reservoir) on 93 North.  I knew that at some point the day before my gas tank light had come on. But that means nothing to me! It doesn’t scare me. And I was headed in early because we did this fun, interactive service called “Dreams & Nightmares” and I was “on” for leading it that morning. So you know, there were a few things on the line.

It’s weird when you run out of gas. I totally thought the car would herk and jerk – and sputter and make a loud commotion.  Mine didn’t, cruising along the highway, and it just stopped making any sounds, and I coasted in complete silence, slowly decreasing in speed, and just sort of landed on the little median of an exit off-ramp.

I put my hazards on.

And sat there.

And I called Triple AAA.

And I waited alone, for help.

It’s interesting because we are all born into this world connected to another human being.  Literally — through an umbilical cord that provides us access to all the nutrients and sustenance we need for life to us.  And all of us usually within a matter of moments have that umbilical cord cut. And so begins at this moment our journey of living and dying and also for crying out for help! A baby’s first cry is essentially a cry for “HELP!” — loud, declaring need for connection, comfort, and sustenance. As we grow and mature, our explicit cries for “help” likely reach a heightened clarity in our toddler years — “Can you help me tie my shoes,” “can you help me get a drink,” “can you help me jump,” “can you help me go to sleep.” And from there most of us take a deep nose-dive into less clear exclamations of “help” — more veiled in outbursts of emotion — anger! frustration, blame, defensiveness, but without that distinct word, “help.”

Or it’s just complete silence — lives that have no blinking hazard lights of “help.” Lives look put together, comfortable, serene, in control, sanitized at all the corners.

I think about the mothers I named above (by the way, I’m using the word “mother”, very broadly—beyond the traditional definition and beyond gender). So despite all the reasons by which they are known in the wider world, they are known to me as the wisest, most prophetic human beings because they consistently ask for “help” early on, at the faintest inkling of a need, and they ask often – without an attachment of shame or guilt or self-consciousness weighing them down. And there is a vitality in their lives that I notice in the midst of ALL that they hold.  And I can only think that the request for “help”- is what gives them this assurance, this connection to perhaps the most life sustaining nutrients they need — the belief that they are not alone, that there is always someone on the other side of their request for “help.”

Unlike these heroic mothers, “Help” has been one of the most under-utilized words in my vocabulary.  I have not historically used it often or early. In fact, in times that I have practiced using it— it often came out sideways, aimed at someone as a scornful weapon, or just as straight-up  judgement. Coming home from a busy day, walking into the house and seeing that it’s a disaster, I immediately feel tiredness, frustration, underappreciation, and I can’t name those things or ask for help in them. But I can act out of that unreleased need and say,  “Scott, can’t you get the kids to help me!” Help comes out sideways.

And I think, oh, I’m relieved to see that their are stories in scriptures that reflect a similar dynamic of this word “Help.” So let’s look at the story of Mary and Martha on your program in Luke:

Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

There’s so much written, so many thoughts about this  poignant scripture. Often this story is used to compare and issue a value statement about someone who is contemplative or more active.  To declare that Mary gets it “right”, she’s sitting with Jesus, the only place her attention should be drawn. And Martha, oh sweet Martha, she gets it “wrong” — she gives her attention to everything else in the space and misses the “better part” — Jesus — right there in her midst.

I want to give some credence to this take because it does seem wise. I think we can all be helped by slowing down and taking notice of Jesus in our midst.  And also maybe there’s some reality that a lot of our lives require some action and stillness, and attention to have that more in balance is also beneficial.

I do wonder though if it helps to take in some of the cultural context of the setting, to see some different angles of this multi-faceted scripture: We see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s striking given the tenor that we are picking up — that there’s a great hustle and bustle in that house — she’s just sitting and listening.  And yet it would really be striking, if we were a first-century reader, or even striking today to a reader in Turkey or the Middle East and many other parts of this world, because Mary is within the male part of the house. Rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. (N.T. Wright). If we were this reader, we would understand that Mary is breaking code! Cutting clean across one of the most basic social conventions — pressing against the dominant culture.

And if we read even more deeply, Mary’s “sitting at Jesus’ feet” in this context doesn’t just mean that she’s taking in all of Jesus wisdom and learning for the purpose of informing her own mind and heart, but she’s taking in all of this learning to move out into the world in order to be a teacher, a rabbi herself! (NT Wright).

And that lens, this simple moment of her being kind of a contemplative personality, is actually revealing that Mary is a major force — a good, life-giving disruptive force in this house, a prophetess in the making.

And witnessing that is undoing Martha.

For Martha this society she lives within, regardless of it’s inequity, its oppression, has conditioned her to hinge her value and self worth in how well she pleases others — what she can provide them, how swiftly and how well she cares for them — and in the constructs of a powerless system for women, I think Martha actually has used this role of hers to translate to some sense of power,a control she can have of her value and self worth.

And so in watching Mary break mold of this, I bet that Martha’s is in utter disbelief and outrage. How could this be? WHAT is her sister doing? She’s breaking all the rules. It’s one thing to listen to Jesus; probably Martha could have picked up bits and pieces of what he was saying as she walked in and out of the room. But to sit and listen and learn as a way to imagine for a new way ahead, to imagine a different path in your life, to be a force, as yourself, just as you are in the world with Jesus — this she has no gridwork for and she feels threatened.

It can be scary and maddening. When someone else reaches for more – when you don’t know how to.  and specifically when you think you are doing the very right thing.  Maybe, even when you think you are  getting GOD right.

The Code-Breaking Side Pony-tail

When I was 9, I was getting ready to go to church one Sunday morning, and a friend’s little sister had slept over and wanted me to do her hair for church.  So, I made a simple braid down the back of her hair,  as one does, for church. And she looked in the mirror and immediately took it out and made her own sassy, side-pony tail.  Hark! I was like, “What are you doing?” “This is not acceptable! You can not go to church looking like that!”

I remember the indignation I felt,  at this move! And I was ferocious at myself, “why had I never thought to wear a side pony-tail?”, “why hadn’t I ever asked why a braid was supposedly better?”  And this little 6 year old trollop just waltzes out of the house without a care, like this option was always on the table.


I was so uncomfortable with this break in code.

When people break code around us it can stir in us a lot of fear. A lot of discomfort.

Yet pursuing the reasons that we want to follow Jesus, the reasons we are alive, means saying “yes” to discomfort. Jesus, I think, wants Martha and us to notice this!

And yet it seems that we are more and more,  culturally-conditioned to fear discomfort.

Who knows what Mary’s conversation with Jesus was as she sat at his feet. Maybe he said to her “Mary, what’s a good day look like to you?  What are the reasons you want to do this life?” Let’s talk about that, let’s see where that can go.

I think Mary did choose the “better part.” Because I can believe that her response to Jesus was “Lord, you say all these amazing things – of what days could feel and be like with you, but help me — I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to step out of my present reality, these social constructs.

My guess is that perhaps Mary was just as uncomfortable and fearful as Martha.

The “better part,” this little word, “help,”  allows for there to be connection — an umbilical cord, even in discomfort, connection with Jesus, where I think Mary can imagine for a life that wasn’t even on the table, side-pony tails and all, and what emerged, what was created, what was birthed as she sat with Jesus, was all new and all broke code.

Martha didn’t know how to have a difficult conversation with Jesus or Mary. Perhaps it felt like too much of a confrontation of where her self-worth and value was hanging, and she didn’t know how to have honest self-reflection, “what could these live emotions indicate to me? And what do I do with them?” She didn’t know how to enact this better part, early on in her discomfort – this word “help.”

It’s hard and unsettling to do so!  It’s easier sometimes to stay within the framework  you’ve known, even though you know you might be miserable, easier to play the part, to  keep the scene clean, the counters spotless, the guests fed, the dishes stacked — to maintain the status quo, to engage in a life that feels sanitized, a faith that feels  sanitized, because this is easier.

God the Helper, Not a Fixer

One of my own contemporary heroes of life and faith, and a person I like to call friend,  Rachel Held Evans said:

Some like to say that the bravest thing Christians can do is defend their faith, to stand their ground and refuse to change.

But it’s easier to defend our faith than to subject it to scrutiny.
It’s easier to dig in our heels than to go exploring.
It’s easier to regurgitate answers than to ask good questions.
It’s easier cling to our beliefs than to hold them with open hands.
It’s easier to assume we’re always right than to acknowledge we may be wrong.

It’s easier for Martha in her outrage to demand Jesus to fix Mary: “Jesus fix her, and get her to help me! Get her back in line!”

Fixing, is neater. Help is messy.

Martha feels threatened and it’s easier to assert a sense of power and control through anger and pointing fingers than to stop and still ourselves, and bend to the love of God, that might just be in the Living room with us.

Jesus loves and cares for  our whole well-being, all of our life — not just “fixing a part of us,” He he cares about helping us heal all of who we are — our emotions, our frailties, our mis-steps and our good steps! Mending us together, from our insides, so our work, and roles and faith can be inter-connected.  God wants us to be saved, because saved means inter-connected.

If we see God as ultimate “Fixer”, than there’s no margin, no release for us when we mess up the prescribed plan.   And we enter and create systems where the only:

Fix for fear is blame.

The fix for weakness is shame.  

The fix for anger is judgement.

The fix for discomfort is isolation.

The fix for a life seeking perfection is utter torment.

“Help” – is the better part, because it brings all of the parts of ourselves that we section off, that we want to hide out into the light and back together.

Jesus cares for Martha — her anxiety, her distraction — he wants to hear about it, what’s going on for her!  He wants her to see him as ‘helper’.

Walter Brueggemann says, “the God at work in our life will determine the shape and quality and risk at the center of our existence.”

It matters to Jesus who Martha sees him to be.

Stranded, Continued

You might know from stories I’ve told before that I hate being cold, like more than anything.  

I feel angry when I’m cold; I take it personally when it’s below 50 degrees (so today, on mother’s day, I’m suspending my anger as it’s in the mid 40’s!!).

And so, I find it interesting that  for the first few minutes of waiting on the side of the road,  in my gas-less car in December I didn’t really notice the cold…

And I kind of went into action, as I was waiting.

I called Cate who was waiting for me here at the church, to let her know I’d be late.

I called triple A.

I called my friend Miriam, who was also headed in early to church, to see if she was ahead or behind me..

I sent a couple of emails from my phone.

I busied myself.

And then I noticed the cold creeping in the discomfort, it was 23 degrees.  I found some crusty socks in the back of the car and put them on.

And I started in that discomfort to feel some things!  Discomfort can talk to us, it can call to the surface feelings we’ve suspended or become numb to.

I started to ask questions of myself, and kind of put myself on the hook.

Mostly circumstantial questions to start: “when did that fuel light go on – was it yesterday or the day before?”

“Why was it that I didn’t stop for gas?”

And then this led to a little deeper line of questioning…

“Does this tell me something bigger about my life? “

“Where’s the margin in my life?”

And I sat there and reviewed my week.

Reviewed the past month.

And what those days had looked like.

And then I noticed this rising indignation inside of myself for my own line of questioning, and yelled out, “Well this is just how life is!! I’m not going to stop being a mom to 3 active children, I’m not going to stop being a pastor, I love this job and this role, I’m not going to stop being a present, loving, kind, amazing, always grace-filled wife!!”

And I kind of worked myself up!

I felt like Jesus said, “Whoa whoa, whoa – why are you so defensive? I’m not asking you to change who you are OR sacrifice what you love!”

I’m just checking in to see if you need “help.”

Aaah, the better part: to ask God for “help”  had not yet been on my mind, even stranded on the side of the road.

WHY IS it so hard for to ask for help?
For me it feels like I’m giving up.  And giving up a lot!!!

I hinge my worth on what I can handle, how much I can handle, my capacity..  

Then I feel like I’m throwing all I’ve worked for out the window.

It feels like defeat, admitting my limitations.

And that is uncomfortable..

And I don’t like it.

I’m sympathetic to Martha — she didn’t know how to unhinge herself from the system, as messed up as it was, that had given her a sense of worth. Me too.  

To surrender to Jesus’ love is not giving up;it’s a place for holy release, admitting we are human.  And that’s what Jesus, called us to be after all. 

My friend, Rachel Held Evans, says that “The very condition of humanity is to be wrong about God. The moment we figure God out, God ceases to be God. Maybe it’s time to embrace the mystery and let ourselves off the hook.”. (RHE)

Rachel Held Evans: Prophet

Rachel Held Evans – wrote four books in the last 10 years. And she broke code all over the place!  She wrote and spoke about the reality of being human. She called truth to power, of systems and people who couldn’t hold humanity with care!     She called out truth for people, particularly the marginalized and oppressed who found themselves in the trenches of Christianity where light and hope were covered by “a mask of pretending” and “exclusion.” She created space, just space human space  where people with shame, and grief and fear and doubts and questions, too heavy to bear anymore, could unload and release, and call out for “help!”

“Rachel Held Evan’s congregation was online, and her Twitter feed became her church, a gathering place for thousands” (Elizabeth Dias, New York Times)

Her platform as a writer, and prophetic voice was undoubtedly a help to people to rebuild a sense of self, and believe in God, in new ways.  But it was her humanness that paved the way for so many of us to find our own way again.

She died a week ago at the age of 37. And in her short life she set more things on fire than even my 10 year old son could hope to: 1,000’s of hearts that had been covered in stone, and yet she rolled those stones away, sending prophetic words into the dark — “you are ALL welcome at the table,” “I see you,” “you are not alone” — birthing and fiercely protecting new life in those hearts as only a mother who has cried out “help,” many a times herself can.

So, I guess my child was right, prophets do set things on fire and then die. I added this scripture, in John, to the program today because it’s the continuation of Martha’s story. I want to see where this outraged, mess of a beautiful woman ends up with Jesus, and because I needed it for my own discomfort and pain I feel in the loss of Rachel Held Evans.

John 11:17-42 (NRSV)

Setting here is where Martha and Mary have called out for “help” to Jesus for their sick brother Lazarus.

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (same response as Martha’s).  33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me..”

So what happens here?  Martha breaks code this time! She runs out of a house full of mourners, she leaves her duties and breaks the strict Jewish law, which would have been to stay within the house for 7 days, sitting barefoot on the floor.

We see her be sad and angry and fiery with Jesus!

We see her be fully Martha and we see her be fully human!
“What are you doing?! Where have you been?! Lazarus would have been alive if you had gotten here earlier!” “Don’t take away that stone!  There will be such a stench — he’s been dead four days!”

She lays it all out, doesn’t hold back with Jesus! This is what Jesus wants! When we are honest with ourselves, and with our emotions, we are close to Jesus who doesn’t say, “Clean yourself up a bit,” “or where have you been?”  but who says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” You don’t have to wait for the End! I am, right now, resurrection and life to you, Martha.  

Jesus helps us. He enables our well-being to live and thrive and flourish.  And it starts with this messy picture of us with our hazard lights on in the cold, pulled over on the side of the road in surrender. And it starts with us running to him, with all of our raw emotions  gritty, messy, tear-stained cheeks — out of breath and bruises of faith, saying, “Help me, Jesus. Help!!”

And this is true, whether in our kitchens in the midst of doing dishes, or unto death.

And in that connection to Jesus, life to us, who is also tear-stained and flush with anger, meeting us, with us. He, himself who would soon cry out in anguish to God, unto his own death on the cross, “HELP.”

“Help”  the release valve of our humanness — into the hands and heart of love, where Jesus hands us the power and the value and the self-worth we’ve been so afraid we are losing.

Jesus says, “roll back the stone.” I like to think he invited Martha to be a part of that — engaging her active spirit, her want of “doing,” and in the process of being fully invited as her true self, with worth and strength, she rolls back the burden of shame and guilt and blame that has rolled over her own heart like a heavy stone.

And rather than encountering a dark tomb – full of stench and death..Martha encounters “the Spiritlike a womb, from which she is born again” (RHE).

She encounters life.

So may we die to the lies about who we should be or who God should be, or when we should ask for help, or shouldn’t ask for help. And may we be born again and again and again and again, as we evolve along this road of brave faith and surrender, discovering life at every turn, confirming the greatest belief that we are not alone.  

Rachel Held Evans said “We live inside an unfinished story.” While we have today, we have time to imagine and act and we can hold space for those to cry for “help” and meet them, be God’s hand who reaches out, without prescriptions or plans to fix, but postures to love and to listen.  This encourages the prophetic voice in all of us—to break code and say “help” often and early.

  • This is lie breaking
  • This is culture bending
  • This is prophetic living.

May it be so.

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

When you feel guilt, shame, defensiveness or fear weighing you down, greet these as indicators of a need for help and say “help”, outloud as a release valve.

Try this as a first step.

And then maybe send someone a text.

Or join a community group here.

Or email a pastor on staff.

Or reach out to a professional therapist.

Spiritual Practice of the Week:

Practice calling out for help this week as a prayer to God.  Practice this prayer as frequently as you notice the need and as confidently as you can. Consider the underlying need of this prayer and what care would look like to touch it.


In the legacy of Rachel and all the prophets and prophetesses that have come before us – could we, as Rachel prayed, remember our

God who mourned and Jesus who wept, help us to reimagine our communities of faith, our neighborhoods and ourselves to become places and people where everyone is safe – but no one is comfortable.  Help us to hold one another to this truth. Help us to create sanctuary. Be with us in this work through all seasons, those of joy, of mourning, of rage and everything in between.

-Rachel Held Evans

Speaking Life into Being, Where You Can’t Yet See It

Last year a leader in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization asked me if I would convene a group of clergy to advocate for at-risk immigrant families. We were going to be part a national effort to try to keep families together. We’ve all learned about children and parents being separated at our Southern border, we’ve seen pictures of these kids in detention, we’ve heard stories of their trauma. It’s been heart-breaking! And our hope was to highlight that this is not just a border issue. That immigrant families all around this country, in our city included, risk being separated. Particularly when you have citizen children of a parent or parents who are undocumented, well, we have millions of these kids whose families live in fear.

Getting involved in this cause, I discovered that for many people of faith, there are some common convictions we share. Regardless of our political affiliations or whatever we think about immigration policy, we feel there is something sacred about families, and about children’s rights to be with their family. And many of us – Christians, Jews, Muslims I’m working with – people of other faiths as well – think God expects us to treat immigrants with dignity and decency and honor, again whatever our views are on policy.

But I also discovered that sometimes we say yes to things we have no idea how to do. I’m a pastor, not a legal or political expert, but these past six months, I’ve been in conversations with national community organizers, with immigration and constitutional lawyers, with aids to high ranking politicians. I’ve been trying to do the good work I think Jesus is calling me to do, without needlessly offending any of you or anyone else in my life. And now and then, I’ve felt like I am out of my element.

I felt this particularly when I was with our GBIO clergy team preparing for a meeting with our state’s attorney general. We were strategizing about a big ask we were going to make of her, and wondering just how best to do that. And I thought: what am I doing, tying to advocate to our state’s top law enforcement leader in an area that she and her team know so much more than I do, and an area they care a lot about. Who am I to ask them to do more?

But then one of my colleagues reminded me that as people of faith, we have the opportunity to do this rather unique thing, which he called speaking prophetically – speaking in public as if what we hope to be true of God, is in fact true. Connecting the big, timeless hopes we have about God to timely reality.

And this call to speak prophetically gave us focus and courage as we prepared for our meeting with the attorney general, and as we’ve started to work on the follow-up to that meeting, after it didn’t go quite as we’d expected.

To speak and to live prophetically is not just the business or calling of religious leaders or people with faith expertise. It’s an opportunity that we all have.

As people seeking to practice Jesus-centered faith, we do that in a prophetic tradition. Prophets are people who try to feel as God feels, and to connect the heart and mind of God to our present reality. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Bible’s Old Testament is full of books of prophecy – collections of writings from the several hundred years before the birth of Jesus, where inspired people try to speak for God in their age, and to live in their embodied action as if God is present and relevant.

Sometimes this is really weird. The prophet Ezekiel for instance might represent the pinnacle of weird prophetic living. We did a little series in Ezekiel a few years back – it was fun. One of my colleagues was like – I don’t know, Ezekiel seems to belong in an institution more than in my Bible. Which might be part of the point – God can speak anywhere, through anyone.

Anyway, Ezekiel is trying to come to terms with the end of the spiritual and civic life of his nation. And he’s trying to imagine with God if there is any hope for their future, after the grim days he’s living in. Ezekiel’s contemporaries – and maybe Ezekiel himself – have no idea how significant these times are, and so to help prepare for their time of suffering and to stir hope for what may lie beyond it, Ezekiel does some really weird prophetic living.

He makes a little model of his city – you know, Lego style, and lies on his side next to it for over a year. He bakes bread over a fire of excrement. He shaves his head and beard, divides the hair up into little piles, and disposes of each pile in a different way – burning some, throwing some into the wind, chopping some of the hair up with a sword, and keeping just a little bit left, stuffed into his belt.

Yeah, prophetic living – living out what we hope to be true of God, living out what we think God is doing today – can be weird or obscure like that.  

But it’s not only that. To live prophetically is to notice that there is a drift to life we’re just going to flow into if we don’t think about it. And prophetic living is to say what if not all that drift is the way life is meant to go? What if the Spirit of God can shape a different way of living and being in the world?

What if a living God has different values we’d love to see expressed in our life and times? Could we give voice to those? Could we put embodied action behind that?

Jesus himself did this. In an age that dismissed the testimony and action of women, he taught women, he honored them, he praised their leadership and service, and entrusted the first reports of his resurrection to their voices. That was prophetic living.

In a world where important people maintained their honor, and had others serve them, Jesus took off his dinner outfit, got on his hands and knees in his undershirt, and washed the grimy feet of each of his students, and said this is what friendship and leadership looks like. That was prophetic living.

Now people who seek to follow Jesus do that in this whole prophetic tradition that starts with Jesus and continues on through the history of many people – some famous, many unknown to us now – who have sought to speak and to live as if what they hoped was true of God really mattered today.

This was true of many of America’s great civil rights leaders, for instance, past and present, who connected their hopes in God with our own country’s public life and our need to see God’s goodness be made real for all God’s children.

This spring at Reservoir, we’re going to step alongside these prophets, and we’re going to try to imagine what it could look like for each of us to live prophetically in our time and place. To see if we too can live as what we might call people of God – not meaning a chosen group of people who because of a certain faith are better than others. No, people of God in that we learn to speak and live as if our best hopes of God are compelling, present realities.

I’m going to start today with Ezekiel, one of the less weird and obscure moments of prophetic living we find there. And in the weeks to come now through mid-June, Lydia, and Ivy, and Michaiah, and I – and a guest preacher, my friend Mako next week – are going to draw from the Old Testament prophets and from the life of Jesus as a prophet, to see if we can stir our imaginations to prophetic living, and to have I hope a little fun with along the way too.

So let me read a bit from Ezekiel and see where it takes us. Again, Ezekiel has been coming to terms with the great Jewish cataclysm of the sixth century B.C., when Babylon, the great superpower to the East, finishes its invasion of Judah, the last remaining bit of the ancient kingdom of Israel.

Babylon would destroy the city, its temple included, conquer the nation, drag its best and brightest off into exile, and bring the life of Israel to a bitter end. And Ezekiel is asking for himself and his whole people really: is this it?

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (CEB)

37 The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.

3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

So, Ezekiel is having this vision in his imagination, seeing this valley of bones while he’s praying. And the only place you see a valley of bones is a mass gravesite – after a war or some atrocity. Which fits the awful times Ezekiel lived in – and here he is staring death in the face, with a question with an obvious answer. There is no life here.

But Ezekiel is open to the weird, what’s beyond his logic. Who knows? Bones are a sign of death, but from a different angle, hey, they are also the skeleton of life, so Ezekiel is like, well – you tell me, God.

I said, “Lord God, only you know.”

4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! 5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”

7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.

9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”

10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.

11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”

So much that’s weird in this weird in Ezekiel’s vision. It’s like amazing zombie or or fantasy film, millenia before people could imagine film at all. Skeletons, becoming lifeless bodies, becoming a living, breathing company of people again.

And five times in this section this weird, obscure verb “prophesy.” Prophesy, my man Zeke, God says – speak it out. Say the truth. Say the hope. Say the words.

It’s weird, because God doesn’t meet Ezekiel in his dreams and just show him this thing God wants to do, or even that God will do. God meets Ezekiel in his dreams, or in his prayers, and and invites Ezekiel to co-create something with God. He shows Ezekiel how to speak a new world into being.

Prophetic living is to know that our lives matter, that most of what God does on this earth happens through inspired people, acting with hope and purpose.

And prophetic speech is believing that words have power. That the right words, true words, hopeful words, powerful words, can birth new life, and speak God’s hopes into being.

Historically, Ezekiel saw a vision of God leaving his state of Judah, and the capital of Jerusalem, just before the armies of Babylon rolled in. But later in this book, we see hope for God’s return and the people’s restoration. So historically, this vision Ezekiel gets has to do with God bringing life back to Israel, Ezekiel giving words to what he knows in his spirit that his culture, his faith, his country, his people are not dead, they’re just out of commission for a while.

They’ve been knocked down, but they’ll get up again. Their glory days haven’t passed them by – good things are coming ahead of them. There’s hope.

So there’s a specific historical import to this scene – to do with the Babylonian captivity, and the restoration of what would become the Jewish people in the Persian era to come.

But there’s something timeless here too. When Ezekiel is telling the bones to get up and live, it happens in two stages – first the body, then the breath. Ezekiel speaks to the breath, because in his understanding, this is where the life comes from.

And that word breath is the same Hebrew word as the word for Spirit. So when God says, “I will put my breath in you, and you will live.” It’s the same as saying, “I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live.”

And I’d like to suggest that this isn’t just a one-time hope Ezekiel has in a particular time and place. This is the nature of God, to breathe life into people and places and communities, and to do breathe life even where we can’t imagine anything but death.

And this is the nature of prophetic speech and prophetic living – to partner with God in speaking and bringing life into being. To co-create life with God in the world. To co-create faith, hope, and love in places where it’s most lacking, or where we least expect it.

One of the places I’ve been going to do this is to one of our local ICE detention centers. I mentioned that I’ve been getting involved in immigration advocacy work, and I’d heard that there are some clergy members who visit detainees in the ICE jail for pastoral counsel and prayer. I thought: that’s a lovely thing those people are doing.

And then I was meeting with a local rabbi friend of mine who does these visits, and without realizing it, she started using language that I’ve used verbatim with you all for discerning God’s invitations to more life and faith.

She’s like: sometimes, Steve, we have to see where something is so important to us that we find a way to turn our “no” into a yes. And immediately, I thought of our whole series two years ago on a life of faith’; we called it Adventures in Saying Yes. And I thought of how the one faith thing we ask in our membership agreement at Reservoir is that we all try to notice invitations from Jesus when we sense them and say yes to them.

And for reasons I can’t fully articulate, it was clear to me that Jesus was speaking to me through my rabbi friend, and that I was to say yes. So I said, Friend, what do you want of me? And she said, try a visit to the detention center. See how it goes and go from there.

And I visited a gentleman once, and I’ve kept going back.

Because two things are happening for me there. One, I’m doing what Bryan Stevenson talks about in his great Just Mercy work. What Ezekiel was called to do in facing down that mass gravesite. I’m getting proximate to pain. There’s a place in our city, I’ve discovered, that is desperately short on hope and life, and it’s one of the few places I can do as a pastor, a clergy member, that most people can’t go.

And I can’t say too much, but I’ll just say one of the guys I meet with – whatever you think about immigration policy, if I told you his whole life story from one angle, you’d be like: this is one of the people we should maybe keep out of this country, or send away. It’s not a pretty story.

And yet, even him, he’s lived a life of to me inconceivable trauma. And ironically, the three years before his detention with ICE were probably the healthiest, best lived years of his life – working a steady job, supporting his kids, contributing to his family and to society. And then in a bad stroke of luck, he’s picked up in an accident, turned over to ICE, and lives in this weird Kafka-esque land of detention – where, given the complexity of his youth as an orphan and a refugee, he has no idea if and when he’ll be deported or released, and no idea where either.

On a good day, this gentleman just wants to be free again, anywhere, any country. And then on a bad day, he’ll look me in the eye and say: sometimes I only have anger and hatred in my heart.

What do you say to that?

Proximity is not enough. It’s easy to be close to the kind of dry-bone, bleak pain you find in a detention center, and just be intimidated or sad, or shut down because it’s hard to be present and feel in the face of this pain.

It’s also clear to me in the face of this real dry-bones despair that this is much bigger than me, that I am no hero, that I am not enough to offer very much help or change. We’re all so small, and I feel that there.

But I’ve also found at the detention center that prophetic speech and prophetic living has power. Encouragement, words of life, have power.

So I look my friend in the eye, and I say, I understand. If I were in your place, I’d probably feel the same way. And I listen some more. But then I say: I see you don’t only have anger and hatred in your heart. You have pride too. And you have love for your children. And you have hope for your future. And you have the strength of the man you’ve managed to become in your life, which no detention center can ever take away from you.

And we hold hands and pray. I don’t know if the praying or the holding hands is what does more, but it always seems really powerful for my friends. It certainly is for me.

All I’m doing is affirming the life and hope I see, where life and hope can be in short supply. And when we pray, all I’m doing is saying our hopes to God, touching hand to hand, but this is in a place where human touch and spoken hopes and prayers are in short supply too.

And so I’ve realized this is prophetic speech and prophetic living, for my friends and I to talk and touch as if life and hope are there behind cement and bars, as if we aren’t free man me, detained him, citizen me, alien him, but we’re just men. Two humans together in the world.

The detention center is a pretty powerful place for prophetic speech, for words of life and affirmation, and for prophetic living that says you, my fellow human, are of inestimable worth, no matter what other message has been conveyed to you.

But you obviously don’t need to go to the detention center to speak life-giving words, or to communicate to someone that their one life is precious and worthy. We all live with people, work with people, shop with people, that need the prophetic speech of life and affirmation and encouragement.

Our culture, our economy tell us that unless we’re exceedingly wealthy or successful or educated, we don’t much matter. That in all the ways our lives are not instagram-worthy, they don’t much matter.

We don’t use words as dramatic as we find in Ezekiel – Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished!

But it’s not hard to find some version of these sentiments in our families, in our friend groups, in ourselves. And so we all need the prophetic speech to hear and to say: God always gives life. God’s breath is in us, and more is coming. This is not the end.

Anywhere, anytime, we can hold empathy and speak words of encouragement, words of affirmation, words of life, we are acting out of our prophetic calling.

I want to get to the end here with a poem. My friend, our pastor, Ivy, introduced me to the existence of this Irish poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama. I’m sure she’ll tell you more about him sometime. But when my daughter and I heard him read this poem, it stopped us in our tracks. It goes like this:

When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five
one, two, three, four, five.
but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count

one life
one life
one life
one life
one life
because each time
is the first time
that that life
has been taken.

Legitimate Target
has sixteen letters
and one

One life.

One life.

One life.

It’s a poem about death in war, but more than that, about the sacredness of life, all life, the meaning and mattering of every immigrant family, no matter how they got here, the meaning and mattering of everyone locked up in detention, the meaning and mattering of all our dry bones, no matter how discouraged or short on hope we are.

God has seen our pile of bones, our diminished human glory, and has taken empathy, has said: I know how it is with you, I know how you feel. I see you. I hear you. I want to be with you in this.

And God speaks to us: this – whatever your “this” is – is not the end. My breath is in you. These dry bones will live.

Our prophetic speech to ourselves, to our loved ones, in proximity to discouragement wherever we find it, is to do the same.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Get proximate to hope-starved dry bones in your work or community – and affirm each sign of hope and life you see.

Good affirmation, good encouragement is proximate first. It starts not with words but with empathy. To be with, to feel with. And from there, when the time is right, good affirmation, good encouragement is specific, is positive, and is hopeful about a realistic and bright future.

To be people of empathy, and of affirmation and encouragement, is to give life.

And our spiritual practice of the week is to welcome this from God to you as well.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

When you encounter fatigue, despair, or fear in yourself, pray: Breath of God, fill me. Dry bones, live! Then slowly and deeply breathe for a minute.