Do You Love Me?

Good morning – I’m Ivy.  So great to be here with you on New Year’s Day!

First off –  Congratulations!  – you have made it to the first day of 2023.  Well done.

 It’s the time of year where there’s a flurry of talk about reflecting and making resolutions…

And likely we all have a variety of opinions and feelings about both. I don’t love resolutions, but I am resolving to drink water in the new year…like more water, more regularly.

Today – I’m going to talk a little bit more about reflection – than resolution – and I’m going to invite us to pause and to entertain a question from Jesus – that feels like a helpful and anchoring one to start the new year. 

The reality of course, is that I don’t know exactly what 2022 held for all of you and maybe some of you underestimate what this year has held for you.  Often I hear, “well – you know, it’s been a year… or hey, look I’m here.” Kind of a protected, or neutral response… Like “nothing to see here.” 

But my guess is that it’s been a FULL year, even fuller than your first pass at reflection might reveal.

I felt this a couple of weeks ago in a staff meeting where our Executive Pastor, Trecia Reavis, led us through a reflection exercise.  Inviting us to name the many things we’ve done through our work as a team… spaces, events, bbqs, classes, baptisms, check-ins, little things, big things, things visible, and things behind the scenes… in some ways to celebrate all that we’ve done – and to *not forget* all that 2022 had held.

And there was something so validating about seeing it ALL in dry-erase marker on a whiteboard. . .  “WOW.  We did do a fair amount of things.”

I expected the next part to be similar to the business-y model of review, “Stop. Start. & Continue” – start categorizing the work we’d done into these funnels – so we can figure out where to prioritize our work and capacity in 2023.  A valid, helpful tool – one though that often gets you moving in a “do-ing mode” pretty quickly… so I was gearing up for that energy…

And there was this slight pause and Trecia turned to us and said, “Now, I want you to think about your personal life over this past year…”

And I froze. I don’t know what the rest of the sentence was  – probably something normal like, “think of your personal life, and all that it held – or all the work in that realm…”  

A couple of people shared stuff – and then our time was up, our meeting was over…

… and I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me…

Was that a “good” wind-knocked out of me feeling – or was that like, deep- pain-wind-knocked out of me feeling?” 

I remember as I went to get up from my chair, I put my hand over my heart. Like I had to hold it in as I moved, to make sure it would still be there for my next breath…  

I’ll unpack some thoughts around this in a minute… but…

This familiar, kind of short- 15 minute exercise that Trecia led us through, was not only an invitation to *reflect & not forget* what we had DONE… it was an invitation to *reflect & not forget* who we are. Our whole human selves that we bring around with us everywhere. With the layers and layers we are comprised of… the layers that make our vocations enriched, the layers that are a mess and weigh us down and the layers we carry and are shaped by –  from years and years gone by… not just 2022.

And it was an invitation to PAUSE, and not forget who God is in all of the layers.

To realize that when we feel like all we have to offer at the start of a new year is a neutral comment like, “well I’m here,” … God celebrates that, GOD LOVES THAT. God goes over the top and reveres our presence as holy, meaningful and sacred.  

For me it’s been an intense year. A hard year, a joyous year, a year with constriction and stretching, of letting go…  And in between my moments to reflect and my moments to make resolutions – There’s always a moment to <pause>. Yes, where any question can come at me, where my feelings can jump before my mind can put the reaction all together – but also where Jesus says,  “I’m so glad you are here. I’m so glad you are here.”

And that pause builds hope. It’s neither a reflection or a resolution – but a truth  – a promise even – that as much as I can lose my breath at the pain and the sorrow and the exhaustion of a year – I can find it again with the love of God.  

So as we start today – and as we stand on this first day of 2023, I’m going to invite you to pause with God as I pray for us. You can close your eyes if you’d like, and  think over the past year – as memories come, let them roll through you – acknowledging, bringing to mind the ones that your heart and body allow.  As they do, suspend any self-judgment or analysis – don’t rush to resolutions… but just pause and take in the full expanse of your whole life over the last year (all the corners of it). As whole people – with all the threads of life (whatever those might be for you); celebratory threads, threads that feel like live-wires and unresolved threads.  Open yourself unto God in this… 

Prayer 

Oh Loving God,

The Sustainer of our soul,

The source of our breath,

The one who resolves to love us endlessly,

The one who reflects back to us our divine beauty,

Thank you for being with us, within us and between us today.

Binding 

Amen.

Trecia in some ways helped us navigate this notion of liminal time.  The roots of this word in Latin mean “threshold”… And so liminal spaces are these threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another.

Many of us have probably been in liminal times – when we’ve lost a job, or we’ve moved… or entering a new school,  or on the cusp of a new friendship. These are all transitional, liminal spaces AND THEY ALL find commonality – in the fact that we are “not in control” – and there’s nothing “certain” that we can rest on. It’s also why resolutions are so popular. Or goals, or plans – you have something that you can at least put shape to, control to some degree – as you move into the unknown.

I love the “idea” of liminal space… the idea that there’s some entrance/beginning to walk through that could possibly usher in new ways of thinking and seeing the world around me. BUT as I’ve lived through these liminal moments in my life, I’ve realized I don’t really love so much the part about “not being in control or certain”… or how LONG “liminal time” can be.  The week between Christmas and New Years – I can handle that version of liminal time – but think about the pandemic as liminal time and it’s toooo intense.

This is part of what knocked the wind out of me – when Trecia said now think about your personal life this year. There were a couple things in my personal life that earlier in the year left me feeling unmoored – and somewhere inside I had formed a plan. If I do, “ x, y, z over the next couple of months – with a bonus sabbatical month in there – with all the attention, presence, time and intentionality this pain point will be “resolved” by the end of the year.”  And in that moment of reflection in staff meeting, my body felt the grief that it wasn’t – even before I could put together why my body was responding in that way…

Jesus invites us again and again to consider that our lives aren’t linear – from one year past to one year forward… this continuum of sorts. Our lives are multi-dimensional  – they have the capacity to hold a MESS OF LIFE – and also a MESS of wild and crazy love – that is all over the place… and So while Jesus invites us to reflect – I think he invites us to FIRST RESOLVE to fall in love with Him day after day after day…  

And He gets us into this space by asking us a great, piercing question – one that’s kind of akin to what Trecia’s question did for me.

My Story

And it’s a question interestingly enough that my husband, Scott asked me – in our pre-dating history (which now was 25 years ago!).  And this pre-dating period – is important – because it was this liminal space… where no real commitment of relationship had been made….. well, at least not by me.  

For Scott I think in his mind (in his dreams) he was already convinced that we had crossed the threshold into being an official “couple.” Despite the fact that I had told him on multiple occasions that that was definitely not the case.  

Still Scott pursued me. Hard. And in his pursuit he was quite heroic actually in laying out the reasons that he was a good catch… “I play the guitar, I cook  – really well… I’m good-looking, nice, and sensitive and humble, etc…” (I thought … are you humble?)

And deep down I think I knew all these descriptors to be true. And it was obvious he loved me – and cared for me – and extended such tenderness to me, but honestly I didn’t know what to do with it all, with that display and level of love.

I had no container for a guitar-playing, sensitive chef.  My examples of “real men,” in my life up to that point, played football and stuffed all their feelings inside and didn’t extend themselves in vulnerable ways…
And so I was happy to engage with Scott at a surface level – I’d go to see a band or to dinner – but I wouldn’t ever engage at a heart level… that was really too unknown for me… and if that was liminal space, I wanted nothing to do with it… 

But a person can only extend himself so far and REMAIN SANE!  And we would have rhythms of intensity – a few months “on” where Scott would really lean in and engage – and then a couple months off where I think Scott would recover from the fatigue of putting himself out there with me. And then he’d gather up the energy – to go back into the fray of my unresponsive heart…

But ultimately the turning point came one night on the phone – after a series of intense “on” weeks…

When Scott asked me,

“Ivy, do you love me?”


This question, “do you love me?”  turned out to be the most piercing of questions for me… 

A question that seems could illicit only 2 possible responses:   


“Yes, I love you” or

“No, I don’t love you.”  

I think though, there’s some layers in either of those answers – that in my story and in the story of Peter and Jesus that we’ll read in just a moment – add another possible, third compelling answer… if not just more conversation than just a “yes” or a “no.”

So let’s take a look at the story here:
This part of scripture is the 3rd post-resurrection appearance Jesus makes.

And where I’ll pick the story up today, is after a long night  – where Peter and some of the disciples have been trying to catch fish – with nothing to show for it.  And Jesus appears, unrecognizable to them, along the shore, and says,

hi friends, cast your net on the other side”

and then they do and they have this miraculous catch of fish… And then we read this early morning beach scene:

John 21:15-17

15 After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.

16 Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

17 A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said,

“Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said,

“Then feed my sheep.”

For three years Peter walked with Jesus in a liminal space, having left his old life of fishing behind, embracing a life with Jesus  -never knowing what exactly the next day would bring – where he would go, what was going to happen. Who Jesus was going to ask him to talk with or eat with or sit with? And all of that time – culminates with Peter denying his friend Jesus – three times.  And then his friend, Jesus died.  And so Peter still sits in a space of not knowing – but it doesn’t seem worth it anymore… 

And like any you who have ever been a witness or participant in a life transition might know at least a bit what this feels like. …whether it’s been loss or birth of something or someone. 

Sometimes in the swirl of all the emotions that such a time can conjure up –  it’s easier to retreat to what we know, the tried and true, to go do something that feels normal again.  And for Peter this is fishing… 

And so, after Jesus’ death – he returns to the old, familiar world of being a fisherman. …

“I know how to do this – I know what to do… I catch fish.  And I know I can live by fishing.”  

And so he fishes….all night…. And catches NOT.ONE. Fish.    

Same boat, same nets, same waters… nothing is working as it once had.
This has got to be a pretty poignant night for Peter. To him he couldn’t get the world with Jesus right – and now – he can’t get a world that he once knew so well right.  

Where does he stand?

Perhaps in the early morning dusk  – tired, defeated Peter looks out to the shore – and asks,

“what do I have to show for my life? Nothing.  All this time with this Jesus – who I have known and believe to be Savior, the comforter, healer, the bread of life, the good shepherd…..  and nothing.”

Except Jesus is standing on the shore – and he answers-

“You got to try something new.” 

What you don’t realize is that in those three years together – despite a sense of day to day uncertainty – we were building something new, something indestructible – that won’t allow you to go back to your ‘old life” the same way.    We built a relationship, we built a flow of love – that is ALIVE and LIVING in YOU.  And it matters – it matters in your life and the church to come and the world to come… 

And as Peter’s OLD world is falling apart –  Jesus shifts his net – and his perspective. To see the abundance of what hanging out in liminal space has brought Him…

And Jesus breaks this open with four simple words over breakfast….. 

“Do you love me?”
Do you love me?

Do you love me?

Now when Scott asked me this question: 

“Ivy, do you love me?”

I quickly answered,

“No, I don’t love you”

… and just for good measure I added a little extra…

“..and I never will.” 

Peter, when posed this question – has a more generous answer,

“Yes Lord, you know I love you.”

Both Peter and I – despite our disparate answers to this same question –  have a deeper, common underlayer…   The underlayer- I think is that we are both fumbling, internally –  with this question, “do you love me”?, because we wish there was a third available answer on the table, that reflects the status of our heart:

“I don’t know HOW to love you”.  

Scott,  I don’t know how to love you in the face of all this tremendous, tender love that you are lavishing on me…. I don’t have a gridwork for this and my love back to you could never match it –

“no, I don’t want to love you – because I don’t know how, and I’ll never get it right.” 

Jesus – I look back at my year – and my thoughts can’t help but hovering over these hard moments. When I feel like I’ve messed up or missed opportunities – or in turn when things have just happened – and I’m left pondering and regretting and angry and annoyed…

Peter says 

“I’ve messed it up too much already, Jesus”

I couldn’t even say I knew you to those authorities – and I thought I loved you???   I think  Peter too, is fumbling with the question and his answer…

“yes, I love you”

But actually I really don’t know how to?  How do I get it right?  

Jesus answers us – he waves at us from the horizon of whatever space we are in… this shoreline on the beach… and says

“Hi friend!”

Hey here’s a great place to start…. start by identifying yourself with a heart of love.  That’s what it’s made for. You’ve got it….  It has great capacity to love actually…

The conversation starts with love,

“Hi friends – I’m so glad you are here.”

Love is not something you can bargain for, plan for – RESOLVE for? It is not something you can attain or work up to—love “is our very structural and essential identity— because we are created in the image of God.” (Rohr)

Jesus – it seems is not that interested in STARTING A CONVERSATION about our past, how far we think we’ve come, what we think should be resolved, all the perfect laid out plans that should work in our relationships, that FAIL – the disappointments, the rejection, the denial – he’s much more interested in a conversation that starts with love….  That helps us open our heart – with all that it holds. 

This kind of conversation allows Peter to reorient, to move his identity from being a fisherman, or a failure, or a person who only disappoints  – to the identity of being love… 

“Do you love me?” 

“Can you find the love in yourself that is and always will be there?”  

This is what will move you into a whole new, big world – where a heart of love matters.

AND Jesus shows Peter what LOVE feels like – right?  He says ‘here’s the new way” – cast your net to the other side.  And Peter doesn’t just catch one fish, right?  It says in the scripture he catches

“153 fish, and the net did not tear.”

That’s the thing about Jesus’ love. It’s going to swing right beside the heaviness of your days and your year – and how you might be feeling about yourself and the HEARTACHE OF life. And you are going to feel the weight and TUG of His love too, right beside you – like a net bursting with fish… but that doesn’t for a second threaten to break.

In our staff meeting – what hit me first – was the feeling of how I might break – if I looked too squarely at the year gone by. Realizing that so much was ALIVE, UNRESOLVED.  I wanted to just move forward – let’s make a plan, let’s get to work – 2023, let’s go!

To pause though, and consider this question from God,

“Do you love me?”

Can open up conversation from exactly where I’m at – right?  To be able to say,

“I’m kind of disappointed God –  this stuff still stings with pain, and it rises right to the top as I think about my personal landscape…” 

And in turn I can sense God raise God’s eyebrows and say,

“YASSS – the host of those memories are going to live with you – in your body, heart, mind  for a very long time.  I get it.”

Validation that so much of life  – so much of being human – and being loved  – is intimate. Vulnerable. Exposing live wires.  Our experiences are often NOT resolved aspects of a year/a past gone by… they are most often unresolved, LIVE parts of us now.

And all of us, over the past year have witnessed chaos – personal,  national, health – you-name-it-chaos,  we have embodied compassion, we have shaken with rage and we have lifted our voices for justice ….we have lived through this year, and this year now lives in us.   

Howard Thurman says,

“We can use our memory of the past with creative discrimination.  We can lift out of the past those things that will give us reinforcement as we face the future, that will give us courage, that will lift the ceiling of our hopes as we look toward tomorrow…..

In this way, ‘we can let the past (our experiences), become something more than history, something that tutors us as we move into the new year. The past is history, but the past is alive, because the past is in us.” (Thurman, 180,181 – The Mood of Christmas)

And when we forget –  as we tend to do –  that part of the aliveness in us is the Spirit of God that  – this red hot fire of love between God and Jesus that is always burning within us.  It’s mysterious.  But Jesus gives us this practical question to tip us back into this flow of love – 

“Do you love me?”

Pause and ask yourself this BECAUSE it activates and TUTORS our hearts – at a deep, opening level. 

Thankfully after I completely shut Scott down by saying

“I don’t love you – and I never will”

Scott paused in silence on the phone – and then being the super logical, practical guy that he is- replied with,

“mmmmmm……Right – well I really don’t believe you’”

And over the next few months, he continued to ask me this question,

“Do you love me?”, “Do you love me?”, “Do you love me?”

IT was a question that I no longer wrapped in his qualifications, “ I’m a “dashing, smart, super chef of a  guy”… it was just a question of the heart.   And it did the mysterious work of opening and transforming  my heart more and more…

So maybe that’s how we stand here on January 1st and look at the New Year ahead

“we lead with Love….”

It’s out of this opening heart space – that things we care about that we want to get better in 2023 –  become flesh and dwell among us – THROUGH us..   It’s how words like mercy and justice and equity and compassion and empathy, don’t waver- with these strong nets of Love to catch us and get us back out there…

Jesus says to Peter – if you love me – or if you are figuring out how to love me – then go feed my sheep, take care of my sheep…BE with other people.  Feed them with this type of Love…it will grow…THIS NEW YEAR have people at your tables, sit with them – eat with them. Call people, text them, send them a note.  Have conversations of the heart, listen. Be present… Tell someone,

“I’m so glad you are here.” 

This love matters. 

Richard Rohr says that ancient cultures call liminal space “crazy time.” And if liminal space is all about sitting with God and falling in love with God – then I totally agree…Falling in love  – is  crazy.  Opening your heart is indeed “crazy” – You open yourself to the unknown, to newness, to pain…unto new depths.

But it’s what motivates us to jump out of our known boats – to trudge through the deep waters of this crazy world….  to get to a fire, where our disappointments and our hopes – find a great big meal with enough sustenance for all of our days found in the simplest question,

“Do you love me?”

So two things for you in this New Year – consider Jesus’ question,

“Do you love me?”   

consider it over breakfast, and whatever your answer is, or whatever conversation this opens up – Sit. eat. Talk with Jesus.  From EXACTLY where you are at. 

In the New Year, consider praying for many people all at once.

Those you know, and those you don’t.

Those you know are suffering and those you’ll never know if that’s true or not.

Those you love to hang out with and those you never will.

Pray for their wellness, their protection, their freedom.

Pray for them – feed them with love.

Getting In On the Christmas Spirit

Hey Friends, so Christmas is just one week from today, but I’m feeling a little flat on Christmas spirit this year. 

Who’s really been feeling Christmas this year, like you are so into the holiday season?

And who’s like me and just hasn’t really gotten there yet?

I mean in past years, we did this by turning our living room into kind of a Christmas shrine. Our family would get a decent sized tree, and we’d pull out our big box of ornaments and decorate like crazy. My parents are really into Christmas ornaments as gifts, and I’ve known them for almost 50 years, so we have a lot of them. Decorating the tree, smelling it, sitting by it in the evening with some Christmas music on – that’s been a really nice part of this month most years for me. 

But we got a puppy this summer, and he’s still in the sticks are for chewing phase of dog life – and little shiny things like ornaments are for chewing too, so Grace and I were thinking: no way on the Christmas tree this year.

Our kids insisted we get a little one and put it in the basement, which we did, but since we don’t hang out in the basement much, that’s mostly meant a half-decorated baby Christmas tree sits there all by itself, not really stoking the Christmas spirit at all.

When I was younger, I used to sing a lot this time of year. I have all these memories of singing in Christmas concerts in schools and churches and community centers and big concert halls in Boston, and tiny little country clubs and living rooms. I’ve sung Christmas music all kinds of places, and loved doing that, but it’s been a while since I’ve done much of that, and I’m a little picky about what Christmas music I like and haven’t even listened to much of that this year either. 

Anyway, for whatever reasons, here we are, a week from Christmas, and it’s falling a little flat for me. So for me, if nothing else, but maybe for some of you too, I want to talk about how this week, and in the days and weeks after that, we can get in on the Christmas spirit action a little more. 

Today is the the fourth Sunday of Advent, the church’s four week pre-Christmas season that ends next weekend at our Christmas Eve services, in person at 4:30 p.m. and online at 7:00 p.m.

In our Advent guide we produced this year, that you’ll find at our website, we spent the first three weeks looking at the self-giving love of God with all of us. And in the final week the guide invites us to join God in a little bit of self-giving love of our own, to celebrate Christmas by participating in the love of God in our own way. 

Jesus, again and again in his teaching about the kingdom of the heavens, of the beloved community, invites us to participate together in the love of God. Here’s one time he does that, a teaching that has become known as the parable, or the story, of the sheep and the goats. It goes like this:

Matthew 25:31-46 (Common English Bible)

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.

32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began.

35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?

38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear?

39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.

42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.

43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’

45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’

46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

Kind of a surprising choice for a Christmas text, I know. No shepherds or stables or baby Jesus, and instead of peace and joy, Jesus talks about a sometimes angry king, dividing up two very surprised groups of people. And in the story, to some he says: Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. It’s like a bad Santa kind of moment – he knows if you’ve been bad or good – but the stakes here aren’t presents or a lump of coal. The stakes are inheriting the kingdom prepared for you, or unending fire and eternal punishment.

Whoo. Let’s deal with the scary part of this story first. 

Jesus is telling a story. And like every story people tell, including stories Jesus tells, the point is never whether or not it’s all literally true. When people tell stories, we pretty much always know it’s not all literally true. That’s not the point.

The point is whatever truth or truths the story is communicating. The point is how we’re invited to respond to and participate in the story – either for entertainment value, or reflection, or in this case, to shake up our sense of how the world works and how to live in it. 

Here Jesus is telling a kind of story that was popular in the religious culture of his era. These were stories about a judgment throne, where God would evaluate people’s lives and faith. And the point of these stories was more about the present than about the future. 

It’s like science fiction. Science fiction looks like it’s about the future, but usually it’s using a story about the future to say something about the present.

Same here. Jesus tells this story about a time when the Human One – a nickname he used for himself – is going to help God evaluate humanity. And the point of these stories is to tell us how to live in the present – they tell us what kind of lives, what kind of faith God wants for us. The point isn’t so much to imagine what kind of curse or reward might come our way some day – that’s more of a set up for the story. The point is to pay attention to what Jesus is saying about the good life, to pay attention to what Jesus is inviting us to. 

Beyond the rewards and punishment aspect of the story, though, the rest of what Jesus is saying about the good life is kind of surprising too.

I mean, last week I Googled how to get in on the Christmas spirit, and the stuff I found was like: listen to Christmas music, light some candles, drink eggnog, bake some more, wash your hands with holiday hand soaps. I don’t know what a holiday handsoap is, by the way. Do you? 

One website was trying to argue that you get into the Christmas spirit by doing more chores. 

Which kind of nonplussed me, by the way. 

Now Jesus does have this story he tells about baking, but his advice here for the good life – at Christmas or maybe any other time too – is nothing like this. 

Jesus is like:

Go visit the prison. Feed someone. Take care of a sick person.

And not only that, but he says do these things because when you do them, you are doing them for me. Jesus says

I’m the hungry and thirsty person. I’m the sick one. I’m the asylum seeker, the undocumented immigrant,

what in Jesus’ time, they just called the stranger. I’m the naked one. I’m the prisoner. 

Now this isn’t a classic Christmas story, but it turns out that this is actually at the heart of the Christmas story.

The Christmas story Jesus is in doesn’t really have anything to do with candles and carols and baking and holiday hand soaps, whatever those are. 

It’s about God’s radical inversion of the social pyramid. It’s a kind of flipping of the script of where God is and what is the good life. 

All societies have their social pyramids – the kind of masses of ordinary people at the bottom and in the middle and the special people we all wish we were at the top. Now, some of the details change from time to time. Some societies praise the beauty of skinny people for instance and some praise the beauty of rounder people. Standards of beauty change. 

But I don’t think any society has said, you know who’s at the top of the pyramid, the people closest to God – it’s the people without food. It’s the sick people and the imprisoned people, and the outsiders who don’t belong people. 

In Jesus’ context, in the first century Roman empire, they had a pretty clear pyramid. Rich, free, men who were Roman citizens were at the top of the pyramid. They could have whatever they wanted, they lived the good life, and at the very tip top of all those rich free Roman men was their king, their Caesar. 

And when a new king was born, there was a nativity story, a celebration of his birth. They called him the son of God. They shared the gospel of his birth, sending out messengers – in Greek angelos or angels to announce: a king is born, he will bring glory and peace on earth, good news to all peoples. 

It sounds like the Christmas story, doesn’t it?

But in Jesus’ Christmas story, we’re not in Rome but on the eastern edges of the empire in the Jewish town of Bethlehem. And there aren’t candles and holiday hand soaps – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – that’d come later, but there’s just a dirty old barn and a feeding trough, the stench of sheep piss and donkey crap in the air. As Mary nurses the baby Jesus on his first night of life, there aren’t ambassadors and servants to wait upon him, just dirty village shepherds. 

This doesn’t sound much like glory. It’s not what we expect from a king, it’s not where we’d expect to find God either. I mean who meditates on the image of a barnyard? Who lights sheep piss, animal dung scented candles for their prayer times? 

This is upside down, it subverts all our expectations.

Howard Thurman, pastor to America’s civil rights movement, one of the great Christian mystics and activists of the 20th century, wrote a landmark book called Jesus and the Disinherited. In it, he argues that the disinherited – those denied inheritance of wealth or power or honor or privilege – are God’s favored people. Jesus came first, he writes, to those with their backs against the walls. 

And so if we read the story of the sheep and the goats, the so-called greatest and least of our species, we can hear Jesus inviting us:

you want to get in on the Christmas spirit? I’ll tell you where I am. I’m with the sick and imprisoned, the hungry and the stranger, I’m with everyone whose back is up against the wall. Join me there, love me there. And you’ll have your reward. 

Years ago, Grace and I knew a couple who tried to live this way very earnestly. And every year during Advent, what they did is they gave a Christmas present, a birthday gift, to Jesus. And the way they did that was in light of this story Jesus told. They fed hungry people or visited sick people, clothed people, engaged with estranged or imprisoned people. 

Their names were Cary and Lil, and newly married, in our 20s, Grace and I were like: we want to be like that. So when we had kids, we decided we would not give our kids presents but together we would make a gift to Jesus. Some years, that meant pooling our money for a charitable donation. It’s meant serving food for a day at a local meal center for the unhoused, stuff like that. 

At first, that was awesome, but then as we had a second and a third kid, and they started getting aware of the world, we were like: you know, we like part of this tradition. But we also don’t want our kids to find us stingy and mean, which if we never give them Christmas gifts, that might be hard for them.

So we started to do the gift to Jesus thing together but also to give gifts to our kids too. 

But how do we think about what it means to give gifts to Jesus by engaging in love with the people Jesus especially identifies with: the bottom of the pyramid, so so called “least of these,” the disinherited, those with their backs against the wall.

You could view this as payback. Jesus says God loves you, so love God back, and this is how you do it. Not be getting more religious but by loving the people Jesus especially identifies with. 

And maybe there is something to that, but I guess I also prefer to think of it not just as payback but more like “paying it forward” – God has loved me, blessed me so much, and Jesus invites me to participate in the flow of that love, to continue passing it on. And he teaches how to do so, in a way that also brings him joy. 

Our friends in Asha, the slum development community in north India, are especially and beautifully committed to this “pay it forward” way of life. They teach and practice that everyone needs to be loved. We all have hurting, lonely, needy part of ourselves. And everyone, no matter how sick, no matter how poor, everyone has something to give too. We can all feed and clothe and visit and love someone else, within our own means and abilities. So they teach and practice “pay it forward” loving communities. It’s very powerful. 

Sometimes a problem come up when we try to live this way. I’ll call it the problem of charity. Where you can start to literally see other groups of people as the least of these, lower than you, and serve them in some way out of a condescending pity. Do it for the least of these. 

Grace and I are in a small group with a few others from this church where we’ve had this discussion recently. We’re studying this book I mentioned, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. And there are people in that group whose whole careers are about compassionate service and social justice, and other people in that group that don’t do that for our jobs, but care deeply.

And we were asking:

Is this what Jesus wants from us? More charity? Whether on the giving or receiving of charity, more non-relational handouts? Disconnected, but generous, condescension? 

We don’t think so.

I’ve been watching Breaking Bad the last month – maybe that’s why the Christmas spirit hasn’t really settled in. It’s like the most nihilistic, violent, negative story arc ever. Somehow gripping still.

Anyway, the whole arc of that five-season show turns on a suddenly quite sick man’s lack of interest in receiving charity. He just won’t do it, can’t do it. So he becomes a meth producer instead.

I’ve been there too – not the drug dealer part, but the bad feeling one gets when you feel like you’re the subject of someone else’s charitable handout. Doesn’t feel good. 

So I’ve wondered if the point of this passage, and the invitation to the Christmas spirit too, isn’t payback, isn’t even pay it forward, but is participation.

Later, the apostle John, reflecting on this story perhaps, wrote this in a letter:

I John 4:7-8 (Common English Bible)

7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.

8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 

So simple. God is love. All love somehow has its origins in God. So when we love, we are participating in the love of God. We know God when we love, whether we’re religious or spiritual or not, whether we call it God or not. But when we don’t love, when we don’t participate in the flow of God’s love for all people and all things, the reverse is true. No matter what we say about ourselves or our faith, when we don’t love, we don’t know God either. 

Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s not about charity, it’s about solidarity. When we ignore or dismiss those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, immigrants and asylum seekers and all, we ignore and dismiss Jesus. Just as when we love God’s image bearers, and especially those whose dignity and needs are neglected and trashed, then we love God.

I take this super-literally for what it’s worth. I’m still trying to give Christmas presents to Jesus in this spirit, including my family when I can. As a pastor to a relatively wealthy, privileged community, I try to let myself be interrupted and inconvenienced when sick or dying or imprisoned people call. 

Our church takes this kind of literally too. We try to prioritize in our church resources a participatory flow of love to Jesus in the faces and bodies of the excluded, neglected, impoverished, and oppressed. And to do that in a dignity-honoring, participatory way, not a condescending, so called charitable way. 

I hope you can find your way into this.

But I want to end with an invitation toward the insight of our friends in India with Asha, the insight we had in my Saturday Bible study that read this passage yesterday too, that this is a call to participation. We all have something to give, something to share. And we all have parts of us that are the least of these too, that are in need. 

So to get into the Christmas spirit this week, I invite you to ask and respond to two questions.

One is, what do I need, and how do I ask for it? 

What do I need, and who can I ask for it? 

My heart was really powerfully awakened by this question last week, and I feel God spoke to me about a need I have to let go of some trauma that has passed by me, to breathe it out, and I’m looking for ways to do that this Christmas. 

How about you? What do you need? And who can you ask for it?

And secondly: what do I have to give? How can I give and love with abandon?

Or as we ask it in our guide:

How this Christmas can you participate in God’s self-giving love? Who will you see? Who will you visit? How will you see Jesus in them, and show up accordingly? 

This is the way into the Christmas spirit my friends – the candles, the songs, even the holiday hand soaps are fine if you’ve got them. But this stepping in the great and beautiful love of God – this is where the magic is at. Let’s join Jesus there. We’ll be glad you did. 

GOD IN CHRIST | Everywhere & In Everyone

Good morning friends! It’s so good to be with you – I’m Ivy, a pastor here. And this Sunday is our 3rd Sunday of Advent. This season that invites us to prepare/anticipate Jesus’ birth. This Advent we’ve been inviting you to pay attention to where you might perceive the love of God with you – and around you.  I hope your week held a little bit of wonder, something good, true and beautiful. 

This week my NEW laptop stopped working. Actually just the screen stopped working – which you know, functionally means I can’t really do a lot of work. There wasn’t a flicker of life on that screen. No trick, no long reboot – no nothing seemed to bring light back to the screen.

A streak of fear shot through my body, as I thought about my week ahead.

Not because I couldn’t imagine a backup plan – you know there are libraries and friends and my phone that I could use to get work done.

But it was my “tabs.” Allllllll the many, many hundreds of tabs that beautifully run along the top of my screen.

Tabs that are inspiration for projects I have lined up in the new year. Tabs that have articles up that I want to return to for research. Tabs that have scripture, and design files, and shopping carts, and Tabs from like 2018 where I found something inspirational that didn’t quite have an outlet then – but I’m sure any day will…

These tabs are little lights that mark my days. Keep me on track – let me know what I should be thinking about, remembering what I shouldn’t forget – and guiding where I should be going.

And now it was just dark… a completely blank screen. Nothingness.

And this is how I feel this time of year in some ways – the sun will set today at 4:11pm. 

Darkness and coldness encroaches and closes in.

The markers of warmth and light and summer days, and beautiful Fall colors, and sounds of kids splashing in sprinkler parks and sticky/drippy ice cream cones wane.  

To me, the landscape around me is just emptiness. Emptiness abounds. Hibernation seems like an incredibly smart option.

And this is really the invitation of Advent – not hibernation! *But the invitation to close all our tabs.

Yes – likely the real ones on your computer screens. But also the tabs we’ve have lined up in our hearts and  minds about what and how you know God. 

Advent is a disruption of knowing – and it is an invitation into darkness.
And to regard darkness as a new way to know. 

Advent embraces darkness, and asks us to not just endure it, or to wait it out until it passes – but to mine the dark. To see, to look, to perceive God with NEWNESS.  To ACTIVELY engage the dark as the setting by which we rediscover the expanse of God in Christ.

A darkness that is sacred, that is freedom. A darkness that has always EXISTED since the beginning of time (maybe before time)…  A darkness that is the original language of God and the birthplace of everything and everyone – even before the birth of Jesus.

This Advent Series that we are in is simply called, “WITH US.” And it’s an exploration of the self-giving love of God… “in Creation” as Steve talked about the first week – and “in Jesus”, as Lydia talked about last week.

And, “In Christ” – as I’ll be talking about this week.  

We’ll spend this time together wondering just what we mean when we say “Christ?”

How is Christ different from Jesus? Does it matter? Does it expand our awareness of God?

And how does Advent invite us to celebrate the coming of God incarnate in the birth of Jesus, AND illuminate the reality of a what-has-always-been a Christ-soaked world?

Advent – while a beautiful, rich time of waiting and anticipation – is also a challenging and active time. One that asks us to close all the tabs that have helped us know God and lean into the darkness  – a returning of sorts to the beginning – to the darkness of the womb.  

Advent is a season that is as much about our own coming and becoming and arrival…to the ongoing story of God…as it is about Jesus’ birth. It’s a time where the belief grows in us –  the belief that we can continue to discover God afresh in ways we hadn’t ever imagined or seen… in the places and people where we already declared “all is lost” – “there’s nothing there…”

And the reminder that God “WITH US” is as much a promise as it is an invitation. An invitation that God needs our partnership to create/form new ways of justice/ birth new wonders, fresh perspectives. God wants to do this WITH US. 

It’s how our own unfolding and spiritual growth happens – valuing the darkness as the rich birthing ground it is.

We’ll take a look at a couple scripture,

A couple of stories from me,

Some wisdom from Father Richard Rohr,

And a whole lot of the Spirit of God – that thankfully communicates to us FAR MORE than a sermon could ever outline.

Prayer

God of wonder and hope and light and darkness, 

God that is with us at our first breath, our last, and in our every breath in between.

Help us today to orient to you – whatever you have for us – to become sensitive to your wonder of us, your love for us – in a way that promises to mark our days with a fresh openness and freedom – to perceive you in the many places we have yet to unturn.  *amen*

Kids Church Story

If you ever want to listen to a phenomenal sermon you should volunteer in kids church. The stories of God told and the responses kids have to these stories… never-ever-disappoints.

For years I volunteered in the zebras room, which is the 3-year old room. Each class involved among free time, and snack time  – story-telling time.  And the story telling uses a curriculum called Godly Play.  It highlights wondering questions – as a way to know God – versus “teaching a set of “known beliefs” about God (who God is).  

So at the end of each story-telling session – which involves simple, tangible wooden and felt components – I would ask one or two of these wondering questions: 

“I wonder where you noticed God in this story?”
“I wonder where you are in this story?”

And often there’d be a great pause – and there would be an array of responses…like this: 

  • “God smells like my mom’s perfume.”
  • Or “my grandmother died.”
  • Or one response, that had a long standing run with one particular class was,  “It’s my birthday”- every other kid chimes in, “It’s my birthday too!”
  • …and naturally we end our story time by singing “happy birthday”… to everyone (and kind of to no one) :).

One of the reasons I stayed volunteering long after my kid moved out of that class was because I took those responses of these 3-year olds seriously. I mean I laughed and sometimes thought, “really? wow that’s wild!”…
But I took their responses in as scripture. 

I had to close every tab in my brain that had previously suggested what scripture should be – and sit with these verses and chapters of the Bible – that were spoken out of the mouth of babes…

But oh how it perplexed and stretched my knowing & awareness of God.

Kids know how to engage the expanse of God (beyond form, name, or words) – when to us it looks like they have nothing to work with…

“Wait – you haven’t memorized scripture. You haven’t understood yet the historical context of this story of Jesus, or studied kenotic theology or the mystics…”

Kids are like hold on, let me just reach into my real life here…

“Here you go, my mom’s perfume (love it, and love her), my grandmother who died (that was sad, and I loved her), and my birthday (love that!)  – and btw mark it on your calendar – because it happens every week!”

And somehow in these exquisite responses they perceive and name the pattern of life and God…. which involves life and love, death & love, and life and love again.  Such great, great love – and such suffering. Seems like even a thoughtful, generous question of “I wonder where God is in this story?”

Is too small a question for the Christ that these kids point us to. They seem to get that

Christ isn’t just Jesus’ last name – but is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love (5)”?

God in Christ 

It’s true – God in Christ is the indwelling presence in everyone and everything since the beginning of time as we know it.  That’s big. . . like cosmic big.

And Christ competes with and excludes no one, *excludes no response – no description or name for God* – but includes everyone and everything. 

In fact the only thing that Christ excludes is exclusion itself.

In Colossians 1:15-17 we read:

Christ is the image of the unseen God

And the firstborn of all creation 

for in Christ were created 

All things in heaven and on earth

Everything visible and invisible,

Thrones, Dominations, sovereignties, powers all things were created through Christ and for Christ. 

Before anything was created, Christ existed,

        and all things are held together in Christ.

The refrain here,…all things, all things, all things, all things in heaven and on earth – all things are held together in Christ – before anything was created. 

It’s so beautiful and poetic.. but..really all things? I use to get nerve-y around this idea of God being so limitless. The faith context that I grew up in talked about God as love – but it was digestible …. a fairly definable God, and a fairly controlling LOVE –  and THAT God and THAT love were for a pretty limited amount of people. Not one of mystery and discovery and ongoing becoming.

But back at the beginning in Genesis where it says,

“And God said, “let there be light” and there was light… (Genesis 1:3)…it seems that here, God joined in unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything (Rohr)…

And this is helpful because Christ is the light that allows ALL OF US  to see things in their fullness – to perceive Christ everywhere and in everyone – and as Father Richard Rohr puts it, 

“when we consider the world around us as both the hiding place and the revelation of God, we can no longer make a significant distinction between the natural and the supernatural, between the holy and the profane.” 

There are no lines.

And we can look at the arc of history – and see how the mystery of God was engaged.

It’s how the Jewish people historically experienced God’s nature through light. They saw the glory of God known as the Shechinah, which means “dwelling of God.” Moses saw God’s light in the bush; the Jewish people were led by light in a pillar of fire that guided them in the desert. The Light also appeared in the tabernacle and the temple.

It is the light that shone round about the angels as they said to the shepherds,

“Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for ALL PEOPLE. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.”

Christ is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being – one that existed at the beginning – sustains the universe and is good NEWS FOR ALL PEOPLE NOW, today.

 It is the universal light – steady throughout time.

Now Jesus (God in flesh) – as Lydia spoke about last week –  brings the message home in a personal way over thirteen billion years later! In Jesus, God’s presence became more obvious and believable in the world. Jesus – as Lydia said is God’s love language embodied. The formless took on form in someone we could

“hear, see, and touch” (1 John 1:1), making God easier to love. (Rohr) 

And so as we put together Jesus and Christ it gives us a God who is both personal and universal. A healthy expression – whereas a

“merely personal God can become tribal and sentimental – held captive and limited by culture, nationalism and by Christianity’s own cultural captivity to a white and Eurocentric worldview. And whereas a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles.” (adapted 19)

But it is also how we remember with humility, when we try to shrink Christ –  that Christ is always larger than any one era, culture, empire or religion. Always surprising – growing in the margins where we least expect, exemplified in the most barren, seemingly desolate, looked over areas. 

How much of Jesus Christ is a mystery, and how much of our lives are messy and hard and require a God that does not give up on us. A God that is big enough and personal enough both to find us and hold us when we hurt. 

“All things are held together in Christ.”

We need such great love  – to hold us in such great suffering.

A God who is outpouring and self-giving in love – holding us – holding all things –  in this flow – even as life threatens at times to sweep us away.

We read in Romans the extent of this promise: 

Romans 8:35 – 36
35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 

36 As it is written,

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

    We are treated like sheep for slaughter.

Now before we continue with the last 3 verses  –  I want to pause here because this last verse I read is referencing a different scripture –  Psalm 44.  

Where God’s people are having a real moment with God. That resonates strongly with me.

Where God’s people are saying –

“Guess who will feel separated from Christ’s love in times of trouble and distress? US!  Guess who feels like we are dying as danger and sword come our way??? US!!!!  We feel separated from your love.  

 Where are you God? We haven’t forgotten you – or broken your covenant?  Or turned our hearts away!  Yet you are not here.

Psalm 44

It says in verse 23 and onward, 

23 Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord?

    Get up! Don’t reject us forever!

24 Why are you hiding your face,

    forgetting our suffering and oppression?

25 Look: we’re going down to the dust;

    our stomachs are flat on the ground!

26 Stand up! Help us!

    Save us for the sake of your faithful love.

WAKE UP! STAND UP! GET UP! HELP US! SAVE US!

If this world is truly Christ-soaked then where are you?

I don’t know about you – but I definitely feel like this when I’m getting no indication that God is with me… when God feels literally light years away  – when I am just looking at a blank screen.

Is it true God that you can really be for us?  When life seems SOOOO against us?

Help us God!  Could you just be a beacon of light? Not leave us fumbling in the void. 

It’s interesting because in the preceding verses in Psalm 44 – the people remember that God had been kind to their ancestors… 

“planted their ancestors – given them roots…” 

Set their ancestors free – and it was the light of Christ’s face that saved them.  

It is hard, hard, hard to imagine that there is anything but nothingness around us when we are struggling. Why can’t God just show God’s face when we need it most?

I don’t know.

But I do know that wherever and whenever and in whomever we have felt goodness, experienced love in those times – help, comfort, reprieve, rest, a snack… whatever is good and true and beautiful, that too is Christ.

Even if we have never ascribed the name God to it before. 

A quick story to this point, and then I’ll close:


Right around the time my son started in the Kids programming across the way – he also started preschool in our town.  And two afternoons a week, I’d go to pick him up at preschool and he would come running to me – yelling

“mommy, mommy you’re here!”

That winter though, a little boy in his class also started running to me at pick-up and calling me “Mommy….” 

It was a heart-wrenching move – because his mom had died a few weeks earlier while out for a jog.

Something about me – held the likeness of his own mom in his eyes.  

*And I’d close all the tabs that said:

“I don’t know if this is the best thing for this little guy – … psychologically  – for the process of grief – for attachment issues in the long run….?”

I would just let him wrap his arms around my knees, and rub his little back a few times.

And then he’d toddle off to the playground.

Of course, no one corrected him – not the director of the preschool, or the teacher, or me, or my kid.  No one said,

“that’s not your mommy!”

Because somehow in those moments we know – we can’t define or limit God by a word/or even a name.  From the beginning YHWH (Yahweh) let the Jewish people know that no right word would ever contain God’s infinite mystery. 

Any kind of real experience of God will usually feel like love.

It will connect you – at new depths and heights and dimensions – Richard Rohr says,

“In God you do not include less and less; you always see/perceive and love more and more. Anything that draws you out of yourself in a positive way – for all practical purposes – is operating as God for you at that moment –  goodness, truth, beauty.” (52)

Your mom’s perfume, your grandmother’s death, your own birthday… is as much God  – as the God we hope to encounter in church. And God celebrates this – God is not threatened, because God is free, not a God of control. 

And in the moments that feel darkest to us – absent of God… God stands up, gets up,  – wakes US up and nudges our hearts, our bodies, our minds, unto greater attention. It’s like it is to fumble in the dark – until our eyes eventually adjust … so too, can our spirits adjust to the love of God that is the very essence of our DNA and in the very matter upon which we live. 

Scientists have discovered that what looks like darkness to the human eye is actually filled with tiny particles called “neutrinos” slivers of light that pass through the entire universe. Apparently there is no such thing as total darkness anywhere, even though the human eye thinks there is.  Knowing that the inner light of things cannot be eliminated or destroyed is deeply hopeful.” (Rohr) 

*And so if my knees were a flicker of light for this little boy who lost his mom – or to his Dad who was always standing nearby at pick-up, so be it.   

I’m not saying I was CHRIST in this scenario –  not at all.

“I’m saying that Christ is everywhere; and that in Christ every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life.” (3) 

And this is as constant as the light that fills the universe.

The last 3 verses of the Romans passage I started say: (Romans 8: 37-39)

But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.  I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels nor rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

BECAUSE THE height and the depth and the width of Christ’s love adds galaxy-sized-dimensions that we can’t ever fully describe, measure or define it…. 

All we can do is live it.  In this messy, incarnate, mysterious life. 

And pay attention as the Advent Guide invites us to – to perceive the love of God with us and around us.

In a world where empire, intense political and militaristic landscapes and the killings of innocents are rampant… Jesus is born. A birth story that involves a sky, a star, AND astrologers that read the sky for God’s divine presence, and sheep and cows, and a donkey –  all of creation  – every creature somehow a part of the Good news, the ADVENT of love. . . And Jesus Christ is still being born – a love and a light that still compels us to discover God in new, stretching ways  – today.

I don’t know what kind of space you are in today, friends… Maybe you are in grief, or maybe your voice is hoarse from shouting

“Stand up God!”

WAKE UP GOD!…  or maybe this waiting of Advent, stirs in you a deep tiredness and weariness from waiting for so many things, for far too long …  But maybe you are finding comfort and joy in a new shirt, or a lit candle at the end of a long day, or a stranger, or a poem or a bird or a tree at the end of your street…. – may you trust that it is the love of God –  the 

“illuminating light that enlightens all things…. “

Remembering that when Christ calls God’s self the

“Light of the World” (John 8:12),”

God is not telling us to look only to God – but to look out at ALL of LIFE.  And see that the same love and glory of Christ that shone round ‘about the shepherds, that visited Mary in a quiet room, the light that spoke to Zechariah, that laced the very matter of creation since the beginning of time…  

Is here too.

And is still coming. 

Is still unfolding… in us and WITH US.

And is waiting to be seen everywhere else too.

Prayer to end:
Ephesians 3:14-19

Christ our Savior – today I ask that you strengthen our inner selves with the riches of your glory through the Spirit. 17 I ask that you live in our hearts through faith – and through doubt – and through suffering and through joy…. Strengthen our roots in love, the roots you planted our ancestors with – and give us the power that it takes to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth.. And help us to  know the love of you –  that is beyond knowledge so that we can be filled with your self-giving love – filled entirely with the fullness and light of God.

Resource:

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe

Book by Richard Rohr

BENEDICTION

It was so good to be with you today!

My friends  – Jesus Christ awaits your partnership.

May you be surprisingly renewed in the days of coming darkness.

May you find new depths, new  heights, new widths of Gods’ love…

In your wondering, in your desires, in your doubts, and in your joy…

As much as you do in the people nearby.

Enjoy your day

And 

Enjoy what unknowns are awaiting your arrival.

May you be blessed,

Amen.

I look forward to being with you next week, 

Same time, Same place.

Be well.

God in Flesh: The Good Shepherd

John 10:14-16 (New International Version)
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me

15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

Spirit God, you have given us life, woke us up this morning, and brought us here. Everything we do, we do under your care and love. May we become aware of your presence now, that you are with us, within us, vibrating with the power and the creative energy of goodness and justice/righteousness. No matter how we may find ourselves here now, whether we’re joyful and eager to hear your voice, desperate and seeking for you to change something in our lives, or apathetic or indifferent, help us to believe that you meet us here just as we are, with abounding love, we pray, Amen. 

What is your love language? There are words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch. Lately my husband and I have been able to find some time, I’m sorry, I mean MAKE some time to go on walks together. My love language is words of affirmation. I think saying things with words is one of the most direct ways to communicate that is clear.

  • Tell me I love you.
  • Say, I’m proud of you.
  • Write, you mean the world to me.

I think every relationship can become better by saying I’m sorry and I love you often, and mean it. My husband’s love language is quality time. Sorry to gush but man this guy loves to spend time with me. He just wants to be around me and hang out, just being with each other is his thing. I’m always kind of like, we’re so busy, let’s divide and conquer! And he’s like, no let’s go drive together to pick up the take out, I’m like, WHY? I could be cleaning the house! But then we do, like these walks we’ve been taking, and I realize, oh yes, it is good for us to find our steps together, next to each other, and while we walk I get to say things to him and he gets to say things, in words, that I like. 

I can’t believe it’s December already, and we’re getting ready for Christmas. For church, getting ready for Christmas season is called Advent. The word means, “to come” or “arrival.” It’s a season of longing and waiting, a looking toward. And this season of longing and waiting is one that we like to intentionally take a beat on. It’s not 2-day Prime delivery. There’s something that’s meant to be happening in the longing and waiting. That liminal space is meant to be something meaningful. There’s a gift there, if you’ll only let yourself, anticipate. 

We invited you starting last week with these beautiful books, our Advent guide, to pay attention to that lingering of, not yet, of coming. This week’s theme is titled God in Flesh. It made me think about God’s love language. How did God want to show us, as a big omnipotent Creator of the universe, that God loves us and cares about us? Well, God wanted to be with us in the flesh.

And as I read through each day of week two, I thought, through Jesus, God wanted to give a gift, God’s own son, by washing our feet, God wanted to show acts of service, by being a shepherd, God wanted to spend quality time with us, by saying that’s God’s not a master but a friend, God wanted to touch us and talk to us, in the flesh. Jesus is God’s love language embodied. I invite you to meditate on all the ways God speaks God’s love languages to you this week, through this book. For this sermon, I wanted to focus on Day two’s metaphor of the Shepherd. 

In the guide, Steve our senior pastor writes,

“Points of interest: After growing up in a rural agrarian first century region, one of the metaphors Jesus used to understand himself was that of a shepherd. Shepherds in first century Palestine/Israel were low status workers who fed, watered, and protected flocks of sheep. And in Jesus’ religious tradition, shepherding was a metaphor for both human and divine leadership.”

Jesus says,

“I’m like a good shepherd.”

Now, personally, I don’t know any sheep or real shepherds. Not the metaphor, but the actual literal sheep shepherd relationship, I know nothing of. So how am I supposed to understand this metaphor? Well, in some sense I’m not. What are our modern day metaphors to get at this relational, present, loving God? Well I don’t know any sheep or shepherds but I do know some dogs and dog owners. 

I’ll be upfront. I am not a dog person. I’m not really an animal person, so this metaphor is still far from me. I like the friend metaphor more. But actually this is a good exercise in receiving a metaphor you know nothing about. Now, when I see a good dog owner, I am really astounded at the extent and love and care, and cost and time they put in for their dogs. It’s truly a wonder to me. Please don’t judge me, oh Lydia doesn’t like dogs! Gasp! What kind of pastor is that! Look I will pray for your dog if you ask me to but I just will never dog sit is all. 

A woman in my community group, Holly, one day decided to get a dog. She was applying to a bunch of places, looking for an old dog she could lounge on the couch with and one of the places suggested the dog she has now, named Badger, and that she could try it out by fostering to adopt. To which she didn’t particularly have a concept in her head what that meant. Because after he came home with her, she just couldn’t see how he could NOT be with him. She just couldn’t think of returning him and retraumatizing him. and of course now she loves him. 

One day in front of her house, Badger was getting excited about a dog across the street and leaped to cross the street. He was on a leash but he’s a big dog. I met him, and just as a car was coming and they missed it by inches. Holly immediately went inside and started looking for houses in Connecticut. Three weeks later she was packed and moved, and now lives in Connecticut in a house with a fenced yard. In order for Badger to be in her life, she had to completely change her life around to make him fit in her life.

Why? God knows why! The ways I’ve seen and heard how Holly loves and cares for Badger week to week, I literally cannot fathom. It makes me think of the verse in Matthew,

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

I’m not saying Holly is evil, but let’s say she’s not perfect, but she’s a pretty good dog mom. Just imagine, how much more God is willing to sacrifice God’s own ways to fit us into God’s plan? 

Among various views of creations, there’s a theology of creation called zimzum that has fascinated me and grabbed my attention since I first heard about it in seminary. Some say the world was created out of chaos into order. Some say it was created out of nothing. Jürgen Moltmann, a notable German theologian born in 1920’s, took the concept of zimzum from the Rabbi and Jewish mystic Isaac Luria from the 15th century. Zimzum, a Hebrew word, means contraction. That, at the moment of creation, God was all encompassing and decided to contract, creating a non-God space, for creation to exist, that is other than God-self. This theology of creation has implications for our understanding of free will and so forth. They call it, “a primordial withdraw.”

It’s the concept that God withheld God-self for us. A self withholding God. In his book Science and Wisdom, Moltmann says this,

“The idea of zimzum probably goes back to the contraction of the womb at the birth of a child, just as the Hebrew word racham means the birth pangs, and is only inadequately rendered as compassion or mercy. Where God withdraws into Godself, God can create something whose essence is not divine, can let it co-exist with Godself, give it space, and redeem it.”

Womb, yes. I moved around my organs for a baby. I permanently shifted the shape of my bones to carry a child in my womb. 

I love this idea of zimzum. God contracted. God humbled Godself into a man. God’s love is one that is self-sacrificial and self-giving of oneself. 

There’s a Korean word called Yangbo. Translation says, concession or yield. Korean culture has a lot of high valued manners. Someone having “good manners” is not just a nice thing to have, but a matter of great importance, especially for family members interviewing and sizing up their beloved child, sibling, or cousin’s romantic partner. Did they bow properly? Did they have “sense” to help clean the kitchen? Did they yangbo? Yangbo is insisting you take the best seat. Yangbo is letting you take the first bite. Yangbo is giving you room to look out the window with the view. Yangbo is holding the door and letting you walk in first. Yangbo is sacrificing your own needs for the needs of others.

Because sacrifice is also a very highly valued attribute in Korean culture. And well, maybe that’s why Koreans love Jesus. Cause in Jesus, God yangbo’d. God is a god who doesn’t need to overpower but in fact makes space for us. What a god! What kind of God is this? One who doesn’t exert power but freely gives it away? 

Now, zimzum does not mean God is absent. It just is referring to a concept where God is not taking up all the space. God is not micromanag-ey. God is right there, with you, next to you, watching you and seeing and being a witness to whatever you’re doing. 

And when I think about a Shepherd too, what would it mean to be a good shepherd? Cause there are bad shepherds. There are bad coaches, bad bosses, bad presidents. I think I’m a bad coach. 

I didn’t grow up doing sports, so I don’t really have experience of a good or bad coach. I’m full of metaphors I know nothing about today. 

Recently my four-year old girl took up ice skating. Well, she didn’t take it up, we signed her up for a class. We’ve been to about eight classes and we’ve noticed something. Everything her dad goes on the ice with her, she has a blast and she does really well. Every time I go on the ice with her, she slips and falls more. Afterwards when I ask her how it was she says, “it wasn’t fun. It was too hard.” whereas after with her dad, she says, “it was fun!”

So Eugene and I talked about why this might be so in one of our walks. I think I try too hard to have her follow instructions and try to make her do the drills or practice what the teacher is doing. Eugene, he just goes where she goes, which might be totally on the other side of ice from the instructor. He said he just wants her to have her get used to ice and build confidence. Whereas I wanted to make sure she learned the lesson for the day, which would often frustrate her and make her just lay down and make snow angels on ice.

Eugene grew up playing tennis and he said this,

“You know Nadal and Federer play really differently. So there’s no right way to swing.”

Yes we’re comparing our four-year old daughter with the greatest of all times tennis players. And I said, “But she’s gotta learn the basics.” And “I think maybe I’m just a more strict coach.” And Eugene said, “Well kids who had strict coaches at four years old I bet burn out of the sport, I’ll tell you that.”

But I think we think of God as a strict coach a lot of the time. A God who really wants us to get it right. And if we’re doing life wrong, God’s standing there trying to fix us. God is not concerned if we’re learning the lesson we’re supposed to be learning this week. I am, Sophia needs to know how to turn on ice! She doesn’t know how to do that yet and it concerns me.

Even as a Shepherd, Jesus doesn’t say,

“I will teach you and lead you where you need to go and what you need to do for each step in life.”

He says,

“They know me and I know them. My sheep know my voice.”

It’s much more general and relational. It’s the context of a connected relationship not the content of the teachings. 

They say this about marriages too, that it’s not what you’re saying, or the task you’re working on together, whether you’re parenting together or working on a maintenance project. It’s not the content of the thing that might be the problem, she doesn’t know how to listen or he’s being stubborn, it’s a context problem.

  • Have they spent time together recently?
  • Have they connected about other things?
  • Do they recognize each other’s voice, moods, body language? 

God isn’t trying to tell you what God wants you to do to be a better Christian or even a better person. God is simply trying to connect with you. Be with you. Do you realize that? That’s prayer. Prayer is less about what is said, what you said to God, what you may or may not have heard from God, but it’s about sitting with God long enough to know whether it’s your own voice of ego, or your deeper grounded beloved voice of the divine speaking through you. Only you know the difference. 

Our theology is simple at the end of the day. God is love. And I think through Jesus, God was speaking God’s love language with us, saying,

“I just wanna be with you.”

Why are we trying to make it so complicated sometimes? God just wants you to have fun on ice. You’ll get it. You’ll glide. If you need me I’m here. That’s all. God loves you. God the shepherd. God the dog owner. God the mother who made space for you in her womb. God the coach. God is good. And God loves you. That’s it. 

What’s a metaphor that you know well? Are you a manager? A director, a CEO? A teacher, doctor, consultant? What does it really mean to be a good manager, director, CEO, teacher, doctor, consultant? You know best. You know better than anyone what it really means to be a good _(fill in the blank)_.

That’s how God wants you to see God. That’s how God wants you to relate to God. Think of a time when you had a “win” moment in your job or role. When you were in your flow and you really were good. How did you feel? How did others around you feel? 

Somebody sent me this week a one-star review of our church on yelp. I didn’t mind reading the “scathing” review to be honest. He was mostly correct in his assessment, yes we care about racial diversity, LGBTQIA, and women leadership. He also said we didn’t really care about spiritual salvation. But I think there’s a difference in what he thinks spiritual salvation is and what I think spiritual salvation is.

No I am not as concerned about our ticket to heaven after we die as traditionally have been focused about spiritual salvation in some Christian rhetoric. I think Jesus cared about the spiritual salvation of people who were living their lives as shepherds and cloth makers, builders, dancers, cooks, politicians, and so forth. I think that’s the whole story leading up to Christmas, wondering Why did God decide to enter this earth through this person of Jesus? Because God cared about your life now, here. Your body. Your flesh, so much that God took on flesh. This is how I believed Jesus saved. Jesus saved us by being with us. Salvation is here. Right here, with us. Jesus is here, with you. Do we believe that? 

Let me pray for us.

Jesus Jesus, our loving friend. Our good Shepherd. Thank you for being with us. Thank you for walking with us. Thank you for your voice that tells us again and again, that you love us. Help us to hear that fully and drive that deep into our hearts. May we fully know and experience the ever present self-giving love of you in our lives today and this week, we pray. Amen.

Finding God in Nature, and the Power that Brings

The other morning I was driving home from an errand. I had the car radio on but I wasn’t really listening until I heard someone announce that as of today, there were eight billion people on the earth. Eight billion – I thought, how do we know, like today? Who’s counting? 

We had an interesting conversation over dinner when one of my kids brought this up too – like what would it be like if you knew you were the eight billionth person born? And then what if a half second later, someone else died, and then another half second later another person was born, and then they, and not you, would be the eight billionth person born. How many eight billionth people will there be? 

Anyway, the other thought was – wow, that’s a lot of people. Eight billion people. 

The radio host had the same thought, because they asked the scientist they were interviewing,

is this a problem? Is that too many people for this earth? Should we be worried?

He sounded worried, and maybe surprised that all these people had snuck up on him. I mean, I know when I was born there were only about four billion people. Checking my math, I know that’s… a lot less. 

But the scientist was like: no, not really. The earth can handle eight, nine, even 10 billion people as long as we stay open to this dynamic, as long as we talk about and rethink some things to do with how we all consume, and what we use for energy, and what our immigration policies look like and all. 

And I felt both calmed and appreciative that this scientist has a good plan for us and at the same time, not very optimistic that our governments and institutions are listening to this plan very well. 

But I also wondered: what happens when we all confront realities like this? Rapid change, unexpected growth, strains on our person or collective resources.

Are we like the radio host, and all this change stirs anxiety or fear? If so, that usually gets us denying the news, or listening but hoarding our land, our resources, our privilege for ourselves and those like us.

Or are we like the scientist, greeting big changes with curiosity, with hope, even with joy and gratitude and letting all that give us power to get to work as a person, or get to work as a species and plan accordingly?

Today, we’ll start our Advent season looking at scripture and listening to some wisdom from Native American followers of Jesus as well. We’ll talk about big changes we face in our lives, sometimes scary changes, and a way in all that to remember God is always with us and that there is always more than enough. 

This season Advent is the season before Christmas. It’s a time to remember the unique ways God appeared to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s also a time of longing for God to appear to us still. It’s a season where we’re invited to dare to hope that the Spirit of God can again interrupt dull lives, warm our cold hearts, and draw us all toward greater faith, hope, love, joy, and justice. 

We’re actually launching a four-year Advent project, exploring four aspects of the incarnation of God in Christ, the expression of God in human embodied life. 

This year we’re inviting us all to pay attention to the self-investment of God in all of creation. It’s what theologians call kenotic christology. My mentor Tom Oord calls this the self-giving love of God. Another theologian, Tripp Fuller, captures it this way. He says,

“God didn’t want to be God without us.”

I love that. 

God has decided to not be God without us. God doesn’t want to be God without us. 

With that in mind, we’re calling this year’s Advent: with us. 

In the first week we’ll focus on God’s self-investment in creation, the ways God is known to us in nature, and the power that can bring us. You’ve got today’s sermon, but even better this beautiful guide we’ve prepared for you. It’s meant to be used for about 15 or 20 minutes a day but take a look at it today, in paper form or online, and make your own plan for how you’d like to use it.


What we hope this Advent is that our Sunday services and the use of our daily guide can encourage you to some spiritual and personal renewal in advance of Christmas. 

Alright, here’s this week’s Friday scripture from our Advent guide. It’s three verses from the beginning of the saga of one of the founding fathers of the faith of Jews, Christians, and Muslims all. 

Genesis 12:1-3 (Common English Bible)

1 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.

2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,

    those who curse you I will curse;

        all the families of the earth

            will be blessed because of you.”

We meet Abram as an adventurer, a wanderer, a person in search of a better life in a better land. Abram was born on the Eastern edge of what we call the Fertile Crescent – a crescent-shaped swath of land in the Middle East that both then and now can support an abundance of life.

Long ago, when the human population of the earth was nowhere near four or five billion, likely less than 100 million, Abram journeyed across the Fertile Crescent in the hope, the faith, that God had led him to the Western edge of that land, where there’d be a better life for him and for all his descendants. 

His father, the scriptures tell us, had started the journey when Abram was just a child. But then Abram’s brother died. And his dad is so grief-stricken and just so sad that he gives up on his dreams, settles down where his son Haran died, names that place after his lost son, and eventually dies there himself. 

Have you known anyone who’s given up on their dreams? 

I’m inferring here, but it seems that in his loss, Abram’s father’s outlook has gone from hope and abundance to fear and paralysis. Understandable, really. What failure of life, what grief, like the one he’s faced. Easy to lose one’s faith. Easy to lose one’s hope.

But Abram, who himself had lost his big brother to death, keeps moving. He senses God speaking to him, encouraging him to pick up his father’s dream, to leave the familiar and the secure for someplace, something better, something more. 

The promise he banks on is a promise of blessing. Scarcity, grief, curse, loss, failure won’t have the final word. He will still be blessed. 

There is still abundance. Blessing for him, blessing for all his descendants. 

In our faith tradition, the more ancient bit about Abram’s enemies being cursed is removed or modified over time. But the bit about him being blessed and his descendants being blessed is owned by all the spiritual descendants of Abram, all children of God, some of us feel all peoples of this earth.

Living with Abram in the care of an abundant God. Encouraged to be open to so much goodness that it overflows. 

Blessed to be a blessing.

In the story of Abram, faith that he may have in an abundant God and in a life of blessing, it’s hard for him to hold on to this hope. He wavers often, loses his way again and again. 

So three chapters later, we get this bit, a reminder Abram senses from God one night.

Genesis 15:5 (Common English Bible)

5 Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” He continued, “This is how many children you will have.”

Like all of us, it seems like Abram needs a concrete image of hope, a memorable way to remind him to keep the faith. 

So one night, while he’s outside under the dark sky, he has an impulse to look up. And in a darker sky than any of us has ever experienced in our age, Abram would see a panoply of stars, innumerable points of light. 

And the word that crystallizes in his imagination is: this is how big is your blessing. This is how big and beautiful the blessing is, as bright and as many as the stars. 

It’s an old trick, old and good magic Abram is experiencing that truth comes to us through the sacred wonder of creation. Nature speaks truth. It is the first, the oldest word of God, telling us God is with us, and there is more than enough. 

Friends, have you ever experienced truth coming to you, perhaps even God speaking to you in the natural world? 

I’d like to talk about that.

Also, have you ever experienced doubt that your life could be blessed? Ever lost your hope or become overwhelmed by fear? 

Maybe your own grief or loss has stopped you in your tracks. Maybe, as with Abram, a family legacy of pain has seemed more real than your aspirations for something better. 

Or maybe like that radio host hearing about eight billion people for the first time, the data and circumstances of life overwhelm and crowd out optimism, growth, possibility.

All this has happened to me.

When I was in my late 20s, I hit a moment where I was just gripped with fear. 

Grace and I had our first child, a baby less than one year old. 

After a rocky start in my early 20s, I’d found what I thought was not just a stable job, but a vocation – a career where I’d grow and contribute and support myself and my family while being fulfilled. 

I was a newish public school teacher, but I was growing, getting better at it and happier in it, finding my way.

And then I was laid off. The city where I taught was facing budget cuts, and last in, first out was the way of things. So I was told I’d be out of a job when the school year ended, and because my licensure was still temporary, I wasn’t so sure I’d find another teaching job again quickly.

For me, this experience of being laid off surfaced a ton of fears. 

My parents had some big disappointments and many periods of job instability when I was a kid. I have a vivid memory from when I was young of seeing one of my parents, sitting at a desk, papers before them, crying. I knew what it was like for people to feel insecure, like there was not enough, and now, with a new baby, I felt like I was recreating that pattern for my kids.

I felt like a failure, like I’d avoided it to this point, but here was the destiny for my life as a husband, as a worker, as a father – not good enough, not having enough. 

Here’s how I’ve always told the story to myself of what happened then. 

My little family of three was on vacation with some extended family. Others had paid our way because, well you know, we didn’t have enough. 

And I’d been reading the prophet Jeremiah, which is largely grim, but one morning on the vacation, I awoke before dawn with my Bible, an accompanying prayer guide on Jeremiah I was using, and a journal, and sat outside to pray in the early morning hours. 

And as I read the scriptures and sat before the sunrise, something came to mind with the clarity of the voice of God. 

I thought:

my failure, my time of not enough would not be the end of me.

Even at 29, I knew a lot about who I was and who I was meant to be in the world. My values, my hopes were pretty clear. And I thought:

God is going to make sure all these hopes and values find their meaning. Whatever job I have or don’t have, that’s not the key in life. No, the key is I know who I am and where I’m going, and God’s with me in this. 

My life was going to have meaning and purpose in the world. There was going to be more than enough for me and mine. And we were going to have a beautiful story together. 

We were going to be blessed. And we were going to be a blessing.

That’s how I tell the story to myself about what happened 20 years ago. It’s how I’ve told you this story before too, that the Spirit of God worked through prayer and the scriptures to speak the truth to me, to deliver me from a nagging, generational fear of failure, and to help me walk in hope, in promise, and blessing. 

This is how I tell myself the story. And I think it’s true.

But there’s another way to understand what happened for me in that story, what turned me from fear-gripped not enough to hope of blessing. 

To tell that other way of seeing it, I’d like to read one other scripture, Wednesday’s scripture this week in our guide, that offers another way of understanding my story that is also true.

It’s part of Psalm 65.

Psalm 65:9-13 (Common English Bible)

9 You visit the earth and make it abundant,

    enriching it greatly

        by God’s stream, full of water.

You provide people with grain

    because that is what you’ve decided.

10 Drenching the earth’s furrows,

        leveling its ridges,

    you soften it with rain showers;

        you bless its growth.

11 You crown the year with your goodness;

    your paths overflow with rich food.

12 Even the desert pastures drip with it,

    and the hills are dressed in pure joy.

13 The meadowlands are covered with flocks,

    the valleys decked out in grain—

        they shout for joy;

        they break out in song!

The psalmist is outside too, like me, like Abram. Abram saw the stars, I saw the sunrise, the psalmist looks out over fields and meadows with grain and fruit growing, sheep feeding, and thinks:

how abundant is this world. 

Now surely this isn’t the only thought he or she ever had about life. This poet lived in ancient times. She would have known times of famine, empty bellies and skipped meals. Or he would have perhaps known wars and threats of wars, conquest and subjugation, in his own life, or in his family lineage.

But this day, out in the beauty of the natural world, the truth returns, that God is with us, and that this God and this earth is abundant. There is more than enough for us all.

I think it’s no accident that my own breakthrough on this front happened because I got up in the dark to sit along the ocean at sunrise. 

 The ocean before me – so big, so alive – made it hard to think that loss and scarcity were the truest things in this life.

And the sunrise – so beautiful, so able to invoke the new hope and new mercies every day brings – made it hard to think that the best of life was behind us, and that God or goodness had abandoned me.

As much as the scriptures or the prayer brought me to God, the beauty of God’s creation did as well. It spoke the truth to me that God is here, that we are blessed, and that there is more than enough for all our blessing. 

I’ve learned this isn’t an accident. It’s a thing we can lean toward, as have the Native ancestors who first settled and lived among these lands we call home.

Mark Charles is a follower of Jesus and also the son of a Navajo father and a Native American activist. He maintains a spiritual practice of greeting the sunrise in the morning. And sometimes he shares an image or short video of the sunrise on his twitter feed with the exhortation,

“Walk in beauty, my relatives. Walk in beauty.” 

Franciscan Catholics have told us that nature is the first word of God. The Bible, even the person of Jesus come later. God spoke truth through nature first and speaks there still.

I’ve been reading the work of another Native American follower of Jesus, the theologian and activist and farmer Randy Woodley. He’s a Cherokee descendant and a wise teacher who brings Jesus-centered faith and Native American wisdom into conversation. 

One of his books is a new one, Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth. It’s a really practical invitation to honor and learn from the practices and wisdom of the Native Americans, whose ancestral lands we live upon. 

Woodley teaches the way Native Americans lived in conversation with the land, in a kind of humble, learning presence upon the land, trusting in its abundance, and listening to its stories and truths. 

Like Mark Charles, he too encourages us to be outdoors, to learn from what we perceive there, to return for instance again and again to particular places in nature we consider sacred. 

I think that happened for me 20 years ago in the sunrise along the ocean. The truth of God’s goodness and abundance came to me as a sacred word in that spot. And the hope of my own life’s blessing, overflowing enough for me and my family and for the blessing of others, became clear.

It happens for me still. It can happen to us all. It is the birthright of all eight billion living members of our human family.

Life’s hard. We lose. We grieve. We get anxious and afraid. Our problems grow and we shrink before our own eyes. And that anxiety and fear troubles us, and sometimes it doesn’t just scare us but it makes us smaller in all kinds of ways. We stop dreaming. We stop moving. We start hoarding, resenting, getting the little we can take. 

But then sometimes we lift our gaze again. We pay attention. 

We still see a few stars still in our electric light-brightened skies.

We get out early to walk our dog or go to work and catch the magnificent promise of a sunrise. 

We look out our window and see the last browned leaf floating down from a maple tree bracing for the cold of winter.

We listen to the ocean, which is always big enough, or before our evening meal, whatever we have to eat, we stop to pray and say:

thank you, God, that again, no matter what it is, I have food. Thank you God that there is more than enough. 

And maybe then we get a little calmer. We remember we are blessed and we are thankful. Maybe we dare to hope again.

And that starts to give us power to get curious, to wonder about the possibilities yet ahead with the help of God and friends. 

And knowing God is with us, knowing we are blessed, remembering there is more than enough, we can rest easy for a moment in the goodness of that blessing. We can walk in beauty for a little while. And we can get to work in faith, in hope, in love, joy, and justice again.

Get outside, my friends. Listen to how God is with us there. Pay attention to the truth of abundance, the hope of blessing, the promise of the good that is and is yet to come.