What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

I experienced a trauma in my childhood that was significant enough that I couldn’t reckon with it until I left home. But at 18, I was old enough and had enough space that I could start.

One of the places I started talking about this was with people in the Christian student movement I was part of. They were to me what we call the body of Christ, the hands, the feet, the kind and accepting listening ears of God to me. I’m very grateful I landed in such supportive community. 

But in one case, I told a young staff member in this movement about the trauma I was trying to reckon with, and he made some not so great choices. 

He offered to pray with me, which I appreciated. I appreciate that impulse, that offer still. But looking back, I don’t appreciate what happened when we prayed. He tried to engage the trauma with me too much, in a way he really had no business doing. He was in his mid-20s, not much older than me and had no real training or experience in this. 

His intentions were good, but impact was not. 

There are so many other questions he didn’t ask me.

He didn’t ask me if I needed a therapist.

I had seen one but way too briefly and I really needed to go back. 

He didn’t ask me if I’d reported the crime done to me to the authorities. It had been years, but not too many and I think that might have really helped me at the time. It certainly may have helped some other people. 

There were actually a lot of things he didn’t ask me.

But he did ask me if I felt ready to forgive a perpetrator of the trauma in my life. He was wondering if I wanted to forgive my enemy. 

Again, I get it. Forgiveness – God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is a big deal in the way of Jesus. 

But I want to ask:

Was this encouragement to forgive appropriate or not? 

And more broadly, when it comes to what we might expect when we’ve harmed others, and what Jesus wants for us when we’ve been harmed, what is the role of forgiveness? What is it or isn’t it?

Let’s read one of a number of teachings from Jesus that touches on this topic.

Matthew 18:21-35 (Common English Bible)

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.

23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold.

25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment.

26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’

27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’

30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened.

32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me.

33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So Jesus is really into forgiveness. Can you see that? Seven times, seventy-seven times… that’s a lot of times to forgive your brother, your sister, your enemy, anyone really.

Jesus is serious about the way of forgiveness, so serious he tells this story that is so weird in at least three ways. 

I mean how does one come to owe 10,000 bags of gold? The term Matthew uses is meant to be obscenely large – it’s something like 160,000 years of wages. That’s even more than a mortgage in Boston these days. Yeah, a lot of money.

And who settles their debts by selling whole households into slavery? Well, it turns out a lot of people do that around the world. We used to do stuff like that in Massachusetts too. But it’s horribly cruel. 

So the first weird thing about this story is that the details are all way over the top.

The second weird thing in Jesus’ story is that the cruel, rich money-lender suddenly has a change of heart and wipes out the whole debt. Paid in full. Someone’s life, their whole household is in ruins, the kind of ruin that is going to curse the fates of multiple generations to come. And, was  canceled.

It’s weird that Jesus would make any kind of comparison between God and this crazy mafia boss figure. But I think the connection is about God’s intentions, to initiate this kind of extravagant transformation in the world, to so release people from ruin and shame and bondage that generations find freedom and blessing because of the power and impact of God’s love. 

That’s an awesome word, that God wants to do something so deep among us. 

But the story doesn’t end here. There’s a third weird part, which is that this first person who’s managed to rack up all that debt runs into an old gambling buddy who owes him maybe a few hundred, maybe a few thousand bucks, and he is after him. He’s like:

If you can’t pay me, you’re getting payback. 

Have you ever had a blessing enter into your life? Unexpected favor or kindness or happiness or good luck or whatever, but find yourself still nursing a grudge, still bitter, still easily provoked? 

Jesus is like:

This is worth interrogating. This is worth paying attention to. 

Then the story ends with a twist. That bitter, ungrateful fool gets arrested by the authorities after all, who go ahead with the original sell-this-man’s-family-into-slavery-for-generations plan, because if he’s gonna be like this, then he’s going pay every last cent of that multi-million dollar debt, no matter how long it takes, no many how many people have to suffer.

Thus sayeth the Lord. Amen. 

Friends, Jesus drew crowds. He was an entertaining and provocative story-teller. He knew how to get people’s attention.

But sometimes, the church has misconstrued Jesus and spun his teachings with a meanness and a rigidity that I don’t think he meant to convey.

So, you get a degraded interpretation of this teaching that goes like this:

Forgiveness is transactional. 

We are so thoroughly evil in God’s eyes, that God’s disappointment in us is like a billion dollar debt. One that merits us an eternity in hell. God, though, is willing to cancel that debt, rescue us from everlasting suffering, if we forgive other people the smaller harms they do us. Don’t go for payback, no revenge, be nice instead. And maybe God’ll be nice to you. 

Now, if the church had followed even that teaching for centuries, we might be better off. There would have been a lot less war, a lot fewer prisons.

But still, it’s a degraded teaching, to treat forgiveness like a transaction and say if you do or don’t do this, then God will or won’t do that. 

We can do better than this. 

I read this teaching more like Jesus is describing a whole economy of forgiveness. There is a way of Jesus. There is a way of Jesus that we can more or less live within, and the way of Jesus is about mercy. 

We get a negative example. The newly debt-relieved servant is like my working class European ancestors who (as soon as they found themselves accessing a little bit of security and standing in American society) joined the people above them in anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-indigenous attitudes and policies. 

And I think Jesus would say:

That’s not the way of grace. That’s not the way of mercy. 

Jesus is announcing an economy of universal spiritual liberation that he puts in terms of debt and status and all to emphasize that everything is spiritual, that the economy of God’s mercy should touch everyone and everything. The way of Jesus has no room for profiting off others’ misery. No room for harshness, bitterness, punching down. Jesus wants to be in the way of mercy, to be vessels of kindness and mercy. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

But Jesus also isn’t teaching isn’t some kind of spiritual obligation that will keep vulnerable people more vulnerable. 

As Lydia preached, forgiveness is not a summons to stay in relationship with someone who harms you.

As Keri preached last week, forgiveness is also not a license to leave injustice or bad behavior alone. 

Forgiveness is not necessarily a change in our feelings, so that we feel warmly and kindly to people and forces that harmed us. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. 

What is forgiveness? 

In our small, day to day annoyances with each other, forgiveness a lot of the time probably looks like a way of empathy, of understanding, of letting go. Most people don’t mean harm most of the time. Love covers a multitude of evils, the scriptures tell us, so day to day, a lot of forgiveness is probably just letting go.

But in this love our enemies series, we’re talking about the bigger stuff, the stuff we can’t, we should just ignore and let go. 

So what does forgiveness look like with our enemies, with the big debts, the big harms? 

It’s two nos, and one yes. 

No #1. Forgiveness is not seeking payback. It rejects the cheap resolution of retaliation or revenge.

No #2. Forgiveness is also not forgetting or minimizing the harm. In fact, forgiveness is how we deal with the very real hurts we still remember. 

And now the YES: in between retaliation and forgetting is a way of mercy, where we reckon with past hurts we can’t change, and where we hope for a new way forward that is redemptive for us, and maybe in time even for our perpetrator. 

But this reckoning doesn’t start with forgetting or niceness. It doesn’t start with good feelings or reconciliation. It starts with grief.

That campus minister who prayed with me, who wanted to know:

Have you forgiven your abuser? 

This is what he should have asked. He should have asked:

Have you grieved yet? This is such a big hurt. This is such a big hurt. Would you like to grieve some more together? 

One of the surprising aspects of the good news economy of forgiveness is that forgiveness starts with grief. 

My friend Matthew Ichihashi Potts, who’s the minister of Harvard’s chapel, has helped me see this better. He has a fascinating scholarly book about this called Forgiveness: an Alternative Account. 

Minimizing and retaliation are both ways to keep us from the pain of grieving. Minimizing and retaliation pretend on the one hand that it’s not that bad, and on the other hand, that we can make it better by payback.

But the truth is that we can never undo our past hurts. There’s no reverse gear in life. Never. 

We can’t make our childhood traumas, if we have them, not have happened. Impossible.

We can’t take back words said, trusts betrayed, failures to act – whether they were ours, or whether they happened to us. 

What we can do, though, is grieve. And as the scriptures say, we can grieve as people of hope, grieve as people who believe in resurrection.

We’ve been taught there are five stages of grief. A lot of folks in the field have expanded this list. It’s called the Kübler-Ross Change Curve and it talked about seven aspects of grief.

They’re not linear, step by step in a row. They’re not a path or a guide, they’re a reference to recognize what grief looks like.

The eight aspects are:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Anger and frustration
  • Depression
  • Experimentation with how we live in our new situation.
  • Decision to move forward in our new reality.
  • And Integration 

When it came to my childhood trauma, I had plenty of shock and denial as a child, as a teen. When I first faced what was happening, I had some depression too. 

But all this encouragement to forgive and move on for me actually kind of slowed down the grief, slowed down the healing, and so slowed the deeper work of mercy.

A number of years ago, I discovered that decades after that person encouraged me to forgive, there was still a buried well of anger and frustration in me. And a number of years ago, circumstances drew that out, and with the help of God and friends, I was ready to feel it and face it. 

I needed that anger and frustration over a lot of things I’d lost. I needed a lot of it. And friends, I needed some help for that to not eat me up, and I needed some help and some hope to integrate this anger and frustration into my life. 

Only after significantly completing this grief do I have freedom around this trauma. I can’t erase the past. There are still impacts on me. But I feel full and loved and whole, including in those parts of my past. And I don’t always want to be connected to the people involved, but I see their own hurt and weaknesses now, and not only do I wish them no harm, but I wish them wellness if they can find it. You might call that love. 

I would. Now I love the ones who harmed me. I’m not in relationship with them all, but I’m free from them. They don’t define me. And I wish them well. 

That’s what forgiveness looks like. 

Friends, knowing that forgiveness takes grief means I can do it a little faster now, faster than decades at least. Maybe you can too.

And this is the miracle I’ve experienced during this series.

When Ivy preached on making space in our second week, I thought of an old friend with sadness. I thought: too much space, too much space. And I prayed as I have many times:

God, I’d love for that friendship to get better.

But in the moment, as has been true in many other moments, I felt:

There’s nothing for me to do just now but hope and pray and wait.

This is a friend who in some big ways had let me down. I hadn’t been perfect myself by any means myself, but the hurts I experienced were enough to need to recalibrate my expectations of this relationship. 

I had noticed some things that had been true before, would probably always be true. And there wasn’t a way for me to undo that. Again, the way toward mercy, the path of forgiveness was in grief. So I spent some time with this space, where I could work through the the shock and denial, the anger, frustration, and sadness around this deteriorating friendship before deciding what to do next. 

And my decision was: I still wanted the friendship in some form. We all know that you don’t just replace people in your life. Some you need to let go, but some you fight to keep. And I thought, this is a keeper, even if the friendship can never go back to what it was. I want it in some form still. 

So I decided I’d accept friendship back in a different form, and I’d pray for and look for an opportunity. 

A few days after that sermon and that prayer, it came. The person reached out. They didn’t reach out about how they’d let me down. They reached out for other reasons, but we had a warmer, more honest conversation than we have in years.

There was even a window where it was appropriate for me to share one of the ways I’d been hurt. And I found myself able to do that in a way that was real, but also that wasn’t like unloading on my friend. I could share the truth in a way that was also constructive for my friend to hear. And they did. 

And as Jesus says, friends, the truth will set you free.

Something is resurrecting here. I won’t get the old friendship back. But I’ve got something, something that looks like it’ll be different but still pretty good.

And forgiveness, which looked a lot like grief, paved the way for that on my end. 

Friends, here’s the teaching.

Forgiveness for our enemies is a command of Jesus. It’s one part of his way of mercy for us all. No shaking it.

But forgiveness is not a lot of bad things. It’s not forgetting, it’s not minimizing, it’s not necessarily reconciliation, it’s not always good feelings, and it is not changing or undoing the past.

Forgiveness is actually the refusal to minimize and the refusal to retaliate.

Forgiveness is participating with God in God’s great arc of love and redemption and mercy.

It starts and sometimes it ends with grief. 

You can’t rush it.

But when you grieve honestly and well, you find the truth setting you free in all kinds of ways. And one way or another, you make room for resurrection.

Slow Time

Thank you for the good and holy word, Rose J. Percy. May slowness be treasured here. We’ll continue exploring this invitation, “May slowness be treasured here” in the sermon today. 

I’m Cate Nelson (she/her) and so glad to be with you today. Greetings from Philadelphia! Reservoir Church is such a special place to me – thank you for having me, and thanks to Pastor Ivy and the team for inviting me!

I’m grateful to be joining you all in this season of Lent at Reservoir Church. The focus of this year’s season is “Earth,” and exploring what we call ecotheology—a way to understand the interdependence of all things on earth, and to look at Jesus’ words and teaching through his value and love of the earth. 

Let’s begin today with two scripture readings from the “Seeds” chapter in this year’s Lent Guide, Earth. 

From MARK 4:26-29

Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvest time.”

The kin-dom of God that Jesus talks about is one that connects the slowness of the earth to bringing forth fruit.

“This is what God’s kin-dom is like,”

Jesus says. Seeds are scattered to the ground. The earth moves through the slow time of days, nights, a stalk, a head, the full head of grain. Jesus treasures the time it takes between the labor of planting and harvesting, the work of dirt and water and sun to bring forth a stalk and a full head of grain. Jesus naming this treasured slowness of the earth and time as central to his understanding of the goodness of God made visible in and with the world. 

We go on to read MATTHEW 13:24-30

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.”

The folks who work in the field are concerned about this, and ask if they should pull up the small weeds that are sprouting alongside the grain sprouts.

“But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest…’”

Jesus is pointing towards the slow work of the earth to make clear what is fruit and what is weed, and the time and the patience to let roots take hold. Seeds take time to become strong enough to become fruit to harvest – and to separate from the weeds that grow up alongside them. Sometimes slowness needs to be treasured to let things grow up to what they need to be, to be mature enough for harvest, or to discern (divide) the good fruit from the weeds. Jesus treasures that this is how the earth bears fruit – slowly, with time and discernment. 

The thing about treasuring slowness, though, is that it sits in a tension – that we actually often despise slowness, and we despise the earth for being slow.

This week, the UN put out yet another alarming report about our earth and climate change. Unless industrialized nations cut emissions of greenhouse gasses in half over the next decade, and eliminate the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050, the earth’s temperature will increase to a critical degree such that climate disasters, crop failures, and species extinction will become increasingly the norm.   

* https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/20/climate/global-warming-ipcc-earth.html

We have seven years folks, seven years, to slow down our collective reliance on fossil fuels. We humans have despised slowness, and dishonored the rhythm of regeneration of the earth’s natural resources. We have enacted this fast, frenetic extraction and consumption that allows our lives to continue moving fast. (examples: fast food, packaging, amazon, heat, etc.) It will take a willingness to embrace a slow earth – rather than demand the earth keep pace with our frantic pace of extraction – to push against the capitalist and supremacy structures that teach us to despise the earth and its luscious slowness. 

How can we treasure slow earth? I love what Rose says in her poem:

We can choose the journey of gestation, to witness the miracle of being whole that only seeds, dirt, and water know. -Rose Percy

We can choose the journey of gestation.

We can consume less. We can move at the pace of the earth, putting our feet along an outdoor path or using our hands to grow food. But really, there is a collective world we need to enact together. For our local, national, and global policies and social practices to reduce our use and dependence on fossil fuels. No amount of individual practice or commitment can respond to climate change.

We need to be a Beloved Community, and find ourselves in communities that share resources such that we don’t need to irresponsibly pull them from the earth. To treasure the earth is to treasure slowness – and we see how Jesus treasured slowness in his love, care for, and understanding of the earth. May a slow earth of seeds and grain be treasured here, that we might witness the miracle of being whole.

Jesus’ words about seeds also relate to time. The slow time it takes for seeds to grow and bear fruit. So let’s talk about treasuring slow time. 

To treasure slowness is to practice treasuring slow time. Time itself is neutral – in the sense the sun rises and the sun sets, giving cadence to the rhythms of the earth and all living things. Time is also political, as it has been given days and weeks and hours and seconds to govern our sense of living. While time as a baseline is neutral, our experience of time and how we use it is not – it is marked and it is measured.

I share a sense of many of us here in the modern and postmodern age that time moves really fast. The default is that there are a lot of demands on our time, there is a lot of activity in our lives, to move quickly from one thing to the next – and part of this that we experience here in the US is the demands of a capitalist system that requires production and productivity. I call this fast time. Living in the frantic, urgent, rapid pace of everything that needs to be done. 

And yet the invitation from Jesus, from Rose’s poem, from the wise sages of our world is to treasure slow time. And by slow time, I mean when we can live with room, and space, and cease from our frantic and rushed relationship with time. 

One way slow time has been practiced over the centuries is through Sabbath. Sabbath, or what our Jewish siblings call Shabbat, is perhaps the most time-honored “time” practice in our faith tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, YWHW commands and commands to us a practice of keeping Sabbath – six days to labor, and a seventh day for all humans to cease from labor, to rest, to connect with others, to worship God together and to celebrate the goodness of life. 

We read in EXODUS 20:8-11 

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 

Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your children, your servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 

11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The entire community is called to Sabbath. This practice of marking a slower time is an interdependent practice. If someone is still working, it’s hard for everyone to rest. If everyone’s pace is fast, we feel pressure to keep up. 

Writer Judith Shulevitz* reminds us that Sabbath was never meant to be experienced alone. It has always been understood as a communal, collective practice. She says that’s why any of our efforts to practice Sabbath—or really any form of slow time—by ourselves can be a very lonely effort. The call is to rest together, to worship together, to celebrate together. Shulevitz points out that Sabbath keeping would be a whole lot easier if the larger communities of our towns and cities practiced it too – if the options of activity were limited so that we might choose each other and choose rest. 

*Judith Shulevitz’s wonderful book, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”

Slow time can happen beyond a practice of Sabbath. We can do it throughout our days and weeks. I find that playing with kids is a tender way to treasure slow time, as is time for prayer or meditation, a long meal shared with friends, or a gentle walk just for the sake of walking. Rose Percy says:

Lay slowly, you are treasured here: Take up compassion for your withering, you who make haste and cut corners, fold into rest for a day or two breaths…. -Rose J Percy 

So even now, for two breaths, we can fold into slow time and rest. 

I wonder where in your world – whether in your home with housemates or family, in your community group, or even here at Reservoir, there can be shared experiences of slow time—that center rest and joy. Matt Henderson is leading the final Pause Service of Lent not this Wednesday but next – Wednesday, April 5. That might be a place to enter into slow time with others.

It is the interdependence of a community and what it treasures that makes experiences of slow time sustainable over the long haul. 

One place where I see Cambridge treasuring slow time is in the longstanding tradition of closing car traffic along Memorial Drive on Sunday mornings and afternoons (and in some recent years, Saturdays too!). This has been happening for 40 years! Cars are diverted to Storrow Drive, and from Gerry’s Landing to Western Ave., the slow, joyful movement of pedestrians, roller bladers, folks in wheelchairs, and kids in strollers and on bikes, and dogs on leash are given right of way.

It is a place where Cambridge celebrates slow time together, transforming a space marked by the fast time of commuting and running errands and hustling kids to activities and allows it to take a deep breath and become a place that honors slow time, valuing connection and play. Slow time is treasured here.

*Sara Hendren, a Cambridge based designer and academic, has a great article about this in the New York Times. What she called ‘designing for time’ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/opinion/cities-reopening-time.html

Our bodies can also be a way to experience slow time. Particularly when we come into sickness or disability, pain or aging, and our bodies become a prophetic testament to slow time – and an invitation to those around us to enter a slower experience of time than the default culture of fast time. One of my sibling’s disabilities means their body moves at a slower pace – and so my relationship to time is altered when I am with them. To treasure his body is to treasure slow time. When I attempt for us to move too quickly, or do too much, the treasuring of slow bodies and slow time is forfeited and needs to be reclaimed. 

Like these little seeds – our slow bodies are to be treasured. Like the grains of wheat – the earth needs time to bear fruit. Like the seeds – our lives need slow time to nurture and care for one another, and to celebrate the goodness of life. 

Let’s rest a day or two, even now. 

Here in our breath is the holiness and the earthiness of slow time,

“settling scattered parts of us into a rooted remembrance” (Rose J. Percy). 

May you treasure slowness in the days ahead, dear friends. 




1 Corinthian 12:12-27

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.

13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.

16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as God wanted them to be.

19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?

20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,

23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,

24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,

25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.

Let me pray for us. 

Divine Love, Thank you for bringing us here together today. Thank you that you called us, no matter what week we’ve had, what morning we had, that you invite us with love and grace and mercy to be in your presence and receive your love. Help us to open ourselves up to something new. 

There’s a Ted Talk from a social psychologist named Amy Cuddy called, “The body language shapes who you are.” It was the one with the study where people took powerful, expansive postures for two minutes, and some would take the opposite, small powerless poses, and then they took their saliva samples for signs of hormones that equate to confidence.

She talked about the universal body language after you win a race — like this, raising your arms up and feeling big. And the universal body language for feeling insecure or scared, like scrunched over, holding your arms. One of her questions was,

“so we know that our minds change our bodies, but is it also true that our bodies change our minds?”

And her study results were, yes. Smiling when you’re sad can make you happier. Lifting up your chin and taking up more space can make you feel more important and powerful. And so they applied this to situations that particularly could influence and matter, like a job interview. Again, they found the study that those who took power poses before their interview were more likely to get the job. 

The feedback she got though was,

“well I don’t wanna fake it and get there and feel like an imposter.”

Because this method did feel a bit like

“fake it till you make it.”

She went on to say,

“I get it, because I know what it feels like to feel like an imposter.”

She tells a story about how when she was 19, she got into a really bad car accident that threw her out of the car. She woke up in a head injury rehab and her IQ had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic to her because she had identified with being smart, called gifted as a child. She was taken out of college and as she tried to go back, she heard them say,

“You’re not going to finish college. There’s other things you can do, you know.”

She struggled with this, having your identity taken from you, your core identity, that equated to being smart. But she worked hard, taking four years longer than her peers to graduate college. 

She ended up at Princeton and then Harvard, fighting through the imposter syndrome. One day, a student who had not talked in class the entire semester came into her office. She came in totally defeated, and she said,

“I’m not supposed to be here.”

That’s when she realized, oh my gosh, I don’t feel like that anymore. but she does, and I get that feeling. And so she told her,

“Yes, you are! You are supposed to be here! And tomorrow you’re going to fake it, you’re going to make yourself powerful.”

The student came back months later, she had not just faked it till she made it, she had actually faked it till she became it. So she had changed. And Cuddy tells the audience,

“don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize it.” 

Now when the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthian church, he had heard the same thing, in our text today,

“I don’t belong here.”

“I’m not supposed to be here.”

“ I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,”

“ I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.”

As the church was facing conflict, corruption, divisions and just general drama, the church sometimes didn’t know how to be the church. What is the church anyway? What are we supposed to be doing? Paul said, the church is the body of Christ. 

We’ve been in a series called Seven Big Words, simply focusing on one word each Sunday to unpack and our word for today is Embodiment. I want to dig deeper with you together, what does it mean for us to be the Body of Christ, to embody Christ? Maybe we’re not facing conflict, corruption, and division as a church, but we sure are set in a world, post-pandemic, often politically and racially divided, and maybe how can Reservoir be an agent of healing and a voice of love just as Jesus was in his time and culture?  How can we, Reservoir Church emulate and be the body of Christ in our word today? What would that look like? 

What is embodiment?

Embodiment: is a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.

The representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form. It is our thoughts, feelings, ideas, theology, values, coming alive and taking a bodily form.

  • What do we believe in?
  • Maybe hope, love, justice, mercy. Well how is that embodied?
  • What does that look like?

That’s what a church is supposed to be. Not just a building with a pastor who preaches such concepts, we all listen, and go back to our homes with feel-good thoughts, but the church is supposed to SHOW that in action all throughout the week in our hands, in our work, in our bodies. The church isn’t what the building looks like, what it says on its website, or even what’s preached. It’s the people. 

I’ve heard people say sometimes,

“I really wish the church would…”

as we’re standing in church on a Sunday morning. And the question I always want to ask is, who is the church? Is the church Steve? Is the church the staff? It’s not! The church is you. The church is you and you and you and you. The church is you leading a community group. The church is you coming to church at 8:30am to set up the coffee and you running late into worship when the sermons started. The church is you sitting up in the front with your arms crossed and you sitting in the back with your head down low. The church is you standing by the bathroom striking a conversation with someone you saw crying during worship. The church is you texting on a Tuesday morning to someone you know who has a surgery that day with words of hope and encouragement. The church is you laughing out loud about the hard things that went really wrong during the week with someone who can laugh with you because they too had a crazy annoying week at work. Do I need to go on? 

And it’s almost funny how similar our text is to what I hear sometimes. I have heard this from some of you, actually many of you.

“Oh I am not (fill in the blank) so I don’t belong.” 

“Oh I don’t come every Sunday, just whenever I can.”

“I did not grow up in church.”

“I’ve been coming on and off for about 6 years.”

“I don’t really know how to be Christian”

“I’m fairly new to church. I only started coming out right before the pandemic.”

All spoken to me by people I literally met at church. It’s funny how many of us feel like outsiders. 

Let me shift for a minute to talk about what it means to be the “body of Christ,” I’d like to unpack the word Christ. Sometimes we use the words Christ and Jesus, interchangeably. Like Christ is Jesus’s last name. It’s not. What does the word Christ mean? It comes from the Greek word, Christos, meaning, “the anointed one.”

So it simply means Jesus the anointed one. If we understand the “body of Christ” as simply, interchangeable name for Jesus (which is how it has often been by many recent understandings) and by that I mean, in the last 50 years conclusion and assumptions and theological implications –which most of us in this room have probably been most exposed to by pure incident of time, but there were other understanding of Christ, not just the person of Jesus. Why does this matter?

Church is the body of Christ, often just meant, church, be like Jesus. Be Jesus in this world. And in many senses that is true. Because Jesus did very visibly show us how to be in this world with divine love. 

In the book titled The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, a notable Franciscan priest, he talks about the beginning of the Gospel of John, 

“In the beginning was the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him and nothing was created except through him.”

Now in the past, even though this text made no sense to me, here’s how I was taught about it. See? The Word, he’s talking about Jesus. The Word, is Jesus. So you see, Jesus was there all along. Jesus was at the beginning of Creation. Nothing came into being except through him. 

And again, it made no sense, but I just chalked it up as, Oh John, you are just so poetic. And I didn’t ask, how is the Word an unmistakable reference to Jesus? But just like any metaphor, it is and it isn’t. John was being poetic, which means it has this meaning and so so so much more to offer us than one conclusion.  

Richard Rohr says

“The word became flesh” in (John 1:14), (John is) using a universal and generic term (sarx) instead of referring to a single human body. In fact the lone word “Jesus” is never mentioned in the Prologue! Did you ever notice that? “Jesus Christ” is finally mentioned but not until the second to last verse.”

It is true that in Jesus, what happened is that a thought became a body. Word became flesh. And it is a visible sign and a reminder that God indeed is one who made divine things into earthly things. As Rohr says quote:

“This infinite Primal Source somehow poured itself into finite, visible forms, creating everything from rocks to water, plants, organisms, animals and human beings–everything we see with our eyes.” 

Though many Christians think of baby Jesus when we think of the word “Incarnation” but, Rohr calls the creation first Incarnation, because the word “incarnation” simply means that

“God joined in unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything,”

including and perhaps quite powerfully and so sweetly in the person of Jesus. Rorh says that Franciscans say it like this,

“Creation is the First Bible and it existed for 13.7 billion years before the second Bible was written.” 

Stay with me please. I know I’m throwing a lot. 

Again, what does it mean to the Body of Christ? 

Some of us have confused the Christian mantra to be, be like Jesus. Be like Jesus. And again, that’s one way to put it. But, And also, it means, You are the body of Christ. Christ – the anointed one. YOU ARE THE ANOINTED ONE! The question isn’t, “what would Jesus do” but “what would an anointed one do?”  You are the concept of the anointed one embodied through who you are, what you do, how you live right now, right here. 

“Follow Jesus” wasn’t just about trying to be like him, taking on his character, learning his ways, which again, is one way to follow his ways, but another way to think of it is, Jesus knew how close and intimate he was to God. So much so that he called God Abba. Now learn from that. Call God Abba, and feel in your body what it means to be a beloved child of God. Understand just like how Jesus understood his own holy anointing, that you are my child, in whom I am well pleased, which is the voice from the heaven spoken when Jesus was baptized and the voice we are to hear in our baptism, You are my beloved. 

Please hear me. You’re not just a sinner who needs Jesus. You are a beloved child of God, just like Jesus. Look at him. Look how he shined. It’s not meant that his light is just supposed to rub off on you even though you are despicable and undeserving. That was a wrong message and how torn I am to realize, how many years I spent, of my life, thinking that GOSH, why won’t his light rub off no matter how hard I try. The message was always that that same light is in you all along. 

So what does the call for the church, for our church to be the body of Christ, mean? It’s not, let’s try our hardest to be more like Jesus. It’s not a call, “be more like Jesus”, it’s a pronouncement.

Verse 27 says,

“You are the Body of Christ.”

You are the anointed one. 

That’s the beginning and the starting point of what it means to be Christian. It’s not, oh dear, do try to be more like this good boy Jesus. It’s, you are loved and holy and anointed just like I am union with Jesus, so I am with you. Isn’t that a pretty big difference? 

I get emotional about it because it’s something that has made all the difference. 

You see, when I first felt like I was being called to be a pastor, I too said the same thing. I do not belong. I am not supposed to be here. Do you know who I am? Do you know what I’ve done? If you saw me in my worst moments in my life, heck in my week, you would not approve of me standing here preaching to you. Most every one of you might say, “you’re one to talk.”

Just to be clear, I’m not a pastor because I’m some kind of role model. I just have had enough grace and mercy spoken to me that has covered me so well that I’m okay with being visibly publicly a stumbling bumbling mess of a person who struggles with her faith. Who struggles with embodying her faith to even her own children when they are relentlessly crying literally for no reason. Who struggles with feeling tired, overworked, overwhelmed, like I’m not enough, like I’m not producing enough, replying to email fast enough, like I’m not enough. 

And you know what? That’s alright. I’m not the whole body. I’m just a pinky. Or let’s give myself a little more credit, maybe I’m a hand. But a hand needs a wrist, a wrist needs an elbow, an elbow does well with a shoulder and a shoulder with shoulder blades. 

You belong. You are the church. You are needed.

I was going to go on about the challenges of embodiment, and how much our body actually has experienced trauma and how much healing we need. That Ted Talk I mentioned, she said as a passing comment, when she was talking about powerless postures,

“So women are much more likely to do this kind of thing than men. Women feel chronically less powerful than men, so this is not surprising.”

And the reality of how chronically women and people of color feel less in their bodies… but alas I’ve run out of time. You know the whole body metaphor of how much it suffers the whole body when you have one toothache. It’s in the rest of the text, how,

“those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

Go back and read it cause I didn’t have time to touch on it.

Let’s heal one another through our church. Let’s not just talk about it or think about it or believe it but let’s really really do it and be it. Let’s be the holy and anointed ones who do everything from the groundedness of knowing that we belong, that we are inextricably connected through the divine love who holds and cradles our aching bodies. And as we figure it out, if we’re not sure how to, let’s fake it till we become it. Let me pray for us. 

Holy and Loving God, you have given us your light in each and every one of us. Give us the eyes to see. Help us to know how absolutely belovedness, that from there, everything we do will derive. Help us drive that deep into our hearts we pray. Amen. 


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… 


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.



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.

Participatory Service

This past Sunday we offered a multi-sensory, participatory service called God is Here, inspired by Rabbi Toba Spitzer and Cole Arthur Riley.  We offer these services two times a year, and like most services at Reservoir, they incorporate scripture, prayer, song and communion – but often in different forms.

The main distinction is that any “teaching” is not detailed as its own element – in fact, a participatory liturgy is designed to allow any learning to emerge as we participate and respond to the stirring of our great teacher, the Spirit of God.

This is why, if you’ve experienced a participatory liturgy, you’ll have noticed the value of an economy of words and the emphasis on a multitude of inroads to encounter and experience the Spirit of God. Our recent liturgy was stations-based inside and outside the church building. An invitation as Rabbi Toba Spitzer puts it to remember that

“there isn’t just one place to encounter godliness– it can just as well happen here in this moment, right where we are – as well as in every moment , in any moment , in any place that we might find ourselves – as we open ourselves to the awareness of this potential.” (81)

A participatory liturgy relishes the unknown, the uncertainty. Hoping that in the unscripted-ness, the choreography of the Spirit will take stage and play out in real time as folks engage with a real and life-giving God. The only variables we can count on are the mystery of God, the power of vulnerability and the movement of a participatory faith that takes us all somewhere new together. 

I’m not sure how it all works, but my guess is that God loves our participation. God loves to see our faith as a participatory faith.

 These liturgies help us remember that our spiritual journeys are not static, one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all, or Sunday-morning-specific – but they incorporate all the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings of our real lives. We may not always know how the components of the liturgy of our lives will play out – how a smile, a moment of pausing and listening to the same old conversation, or how the wisdom of our ancestors will translate into actionable balm to this world, our neighbor, or ourselves…. perhaps this is why the word liturgy means, “work of the people” – because it’s not just the work within a service – but it is the work of our lives.  

May we find God saturating the world around us and within us, even in the places we dismiss. And may these liturgies continue to do the work of unfolding in and around you, as you move about your days.

We encourage you to explore the Reflections, Engagements, Mini-Practices and Installations in the attachment sections below (Place, Rock, Water, Voice and Sound) to begin your personal exploration of this unfolding work.

God Is Here Participatory Liturgy


The Scripture reading today comes from 

John 5:1-9

5 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.

2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.

3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

[4] [b] 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Let me pray for us.

A few months back my husband came to me, almost panicked, showing me his phone. It was his Health App that showed his steps. He scrolled through showing that he averaged 3,000 steps a day. He hadn’t really used the app so this was news to him. Now, my husband runs every day, in the morning, rain or shine or snow almost. But he works from home. I laughed at him going, “Yeah you need to be more active,” assuming that I’d probably be definitely over, because I often work outside of home for meetings and things. And then we checked my app and it was just sad. I averaged even worse than him, about 2000 steps. And no I do not run every day. 

It turns out, according to Washington Post’s clickbait headline: “Sitting all day can cause health problems, even if you exercise” to which I gladly clicked.

Did you work out for 30 minutes today? Did you spend the rest of the day staring at your computer screen and then settle in front of the television at night? If you answered yes to both questions, then you meet the definition of what scientists call, “an active couch potato.” 

Are you an active couch potato? Apparently it’s bad for your health. 

We’ve been doing a deep dive into Reservoir Church’s Core Values, Connection, Freedom, Everyone, Humility, and last but not least today’s is Action. Our website says:

  • Action: Love for Jesus compels us to act—to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

Right off the bat I’d like to say, it’s not

“Look busy, Jesus is coming.”

I’m not going to nag for you to do more. It’s actually, Action is first and foremost based on Love. It says that Love for Jesus compels us to act. So I’ll say a bit more about that later. But yes, it is an invitation to get up and walk and take action, because many of us can feel at times, like we’ve been paralyzed. 

So I’ll start with first, the paralyzing state that we might find ourselves in, second, the healing that it takes to compel us to get up and walk, and lastly, the love that Jesus has for us and this very world that we live in

So first the paralyzing state. 

I remember in the middle of the pandemic when we made pastoral phone calls to the members of our church, a short 20 minute check in during the height of a weird time in our world. I remember talking with Don, one of our members, about the simple desire to just go outside and get some fresh air. It was during that time when literally everything except the grocery store was shut down. When we didn’t go anywhere without a mask on. Don and I chatted encouragingly,

Let’s, even if it’s at least stepping just outside of our front doors, standing there with nowhere to go, stretch, breath, feel the sun on our face. 

And I do feel like many of us are coming out of this dormant time, of keeping safe, of taking care, saying no to many things. Some of you have been feeling the effects of being isolated more, working from home, while pretty awesome in many ways, also has proved to be tricky in “getting back out there” for some of us. 

I think the world can be a paralyzing place. The pandemic, the racial violence, political upheaval, the changing climate, the recession. It is no wonder that so many of us are struggling with anxiety and preoccupied with how we’re to do daily tasks in the face of great worries of our generation. 

Sometimes I feel this way about racism. Like it’s a thing that’s been going on for a long time, years, decades, centuries, nations, people groups have been at it a while and what am I to do about it, if anything at all? It sure does make me feel like it’s been in this condition for a long time. 

I’m intrigued by the way Jesus engages this man who’s been paralyzed for 38 years. It says,

“When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?””

Jesus’ first question isn’t, so what have you been trying to do? What have you done? The man answers as though, as if others have asked, but have you tried going to the pool that heals during the time when it’s stirring? I mean others have, and they’ve been healed. What’s wrong with you? He answers with excuses, defenses,

“no one’s helping me. And when I try, others get in front of me.”

Understandably so. 

Because of this core value of Action, Reservoir is deeply involved with an organization called the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. It’s a 60+ institution coming together to organize power to make a public change for good. It’s given me very specific ways to act even in the midst of feeling paralyzed at the face of systemic problems like the healthcare system and housing crisis. One story I want to share with you. 

One of the recent issues we were working on was housing. GBIO’s method for big change starts with what they call 1 on 1’s. Two people sharing their heart, passion, their concern, their reason for why they want to see change. And from those 1 on 1’s, we began to meet people who lived in the Mildred C Hailey, a city owned apartment complex in Jamaica Plain, who were living under horrible conditions like rats and asbestos.

Now at the time the Boston Mayoral race was going on and GBIO was ready to ask the candidates for some commitments, if they were elected. During a big action Zoom call with close to a 1,000 people from GBIO, about 60 of you Reservoir Faith Into Action folks, we shared the stories and showed videos of the conditions and got a commitment from then mayor hopeful Wu. The end result, as of now, GBIO has secured $50 million with Mayor Wu for maintenance for the Mildred C Hailey Housing. 

You see the residents city-owned spots like this are often ignored and so discouraged to speak up. No one seemed to help them and others got the money before they could get to it. They’ve spoken up before and got no answer. It seemed as though they were paralyzed. But someone turned to them and initiated a conversation, do you want these conditions to change? Do you want to be well? 

I want to quickly touch up on the fact that many Christian traditions often guilted people into taking action and doing good deeds. Scriptures like this for example were used, from James 2:14-17

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?

15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.

16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?

17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

So with that, so many of us got busy. Served. Led. Sacrificed. Which of course, this text is important, talking about the REAL needs of the people. 

I remember a youth group retreat where the theme was, “In the World, But Not of It.” It was drilled into us that the world was evil, bad, and anything of the world was no good. And you should only think of your spiritual being. Prayer, scripture reading, that was important. And everything else, especially our earthly bodies, oh that was really bad. You should fast and of course abstain from anything that gives us pleasure, at all cost. I remember we never talked about the goodness of the earth, the goodness of our bodies, the sacredness of the environment or the earth that we live in. 

Action, that we’re talking about at Reservoir isn’t “do good.” Read on, it says that LOVE compels us. So before action, we need to understand love. Before we walk, we need to be healed. Before we do good, we need to receive and be loved, and it’s that miracle and healing that will change your life and those around you. 

Let me offer you another text, not to replace some possible toxic ways of thinking about our faith and our works, but to be in conversation. That’s how we should be reading the Bible. Not letting one verse dictate how and what you do at all times, but there is a season for everything.

The Bible instructs us in accordance with the Holy Spirit and the conviction of our heart from Jesus and in conversation in community. The  Bible is meant to be a conversation partner not an instruction manual. So here’s another one, 

Titus 3:4-7

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to this mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

I shared this with my Community Group this past week and my friend Rachel said, it sounds like God’s not really worried about our performance review. Exactly. 

“Do you want to get well?” Is the question for us today. Not, “So what are you going to DO?” This is the conversation we want to be having. Are you compelled by the love of Jesus? That’s our tagline right? Reservoir Church exists to invite everyone, without exception to discover the love of Jesus, joy of living, and gift of community. It all begins and ends with the love of Jesus. 

Love compels us to ask questions and start conversations about how we can help each other live in better conditions amidst the housing crisis. Love compels us to listen to the voice of Jesus and engage in a conversation about how to be well when we’re feeling paralyzed. Love compels us to be freed from anxiety and worry to lean into shared interest of making a public change toward public good with other churches and even other faiths. Love compels us to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

Because God so loved the world, yes this world. Not thoughts and prayers but this material physical world with rats, asbestos, rising oceans, guns, violence, racism, mental health crisis. I think the loudest thing God was saying through Jesus was, I care about the human body and the human condition. I care about your thirst, hunger, and your pain.

God loves and care about you, and your issues and concerns and your problems, because God cares about you, not your productivity, your effectiveness, your efficiency, your list of accomplishments, but about you at the core that  may produce productivity effective, your gifts sure may come in the form of action that help you and help others, but that was always meant to be a response, not the starting point. 

Not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to this mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. You know what birth is right? You did nothing to be born. Like the waters of baptism today, you were blessed, while we knew nothing of it. 

My favorite part about this Titus text is the word heir. You know what I think about when I think of an heir. Paris Hilton. I’m dating myself to a guilty-pleasure reality tv show about her, a rich heiress of the Hilton Hotels, being tasked to do things like farming. Or another show I’m thinking of is Undercover Millionaire.

Can you tell that I am indeed a very active couch potato and the genre of choice is brainless reality shows? But think about it, how would your actions change if you found out that you were an heir to the riches you can’t even imagine? Everything you do would change. You would have nothing to lose. Well, this text is saying you are, you are an heir. You are the sons, and daughters, the children, the offspring of God. I don’t think we believe that, most of us, we sure don’t act like it. Why not? 

Have you encountered the love of Jesus? If not, don’t get into action. Find that love first. Be healed first. But if any of you have tasted or seen the goodness of God, the riches of his mercy, get up, pick up your mat, and walk proudly and boldly. Let the love of Jesus overflow out of you, like a cup that overflows. If you have, you can’t help but get into action, you’d be compelled to action that you wouldn’t need a preacher telling you to do anything. What is God compelling you to do? 

I want to end our time with some space for reflection. For you to start asking those questions, where am I with this? Am I paralyzed? Am I in need of healing? What is God compelling me to do? 

In this age of anxiety, I’m one of those who’ve been drawn to mindfulness practices, especially in the face of trauma, when I experience racism, when I see injustice, I get angry, I grieve, I get paralyzed and I can’t fix anything. Self care for those in activism is a big one. And you know it’s just another language for prayer. For a quiet time of stillness to hear the loving kind voice of God within you. Let me end with that invitation and I’ll close us in prayer. 

Feel free to close your eyes to get a little intimate with your heart, body, and mind. Take a few deep breaths to center you. Try to relax some tension that brings anxiety or worry, thoughts of things to do, try to let go of those, or like shelve them for a minute, you can always pick them back up later. Try to relax and give yourself a sacred safe space. How have you experienced the love of God? Or where do you need the healing loving presence of God now? Stay there. Is there some physical image, or a word, or a feeling? Hold that and stay there. Feel free to place a hand on your heart to kind of seal that in with the warm touch. I’ll pray for us. 

God, I pray for the healing power of Jesus right now. You know where each of us are. What each of us needs. What each of us are capable of. Heal us. Lead us. Guide us. Call us, we pray. Call our anxious, worried, often fearful generation to get up. Call us to your love. To your home. And there, in the safety of your house, may we come to see the world with your eyes, with your grace, with your mercy, just as it’s been poured upon us, we pray all these things in the precious holy name of Jesus Christ, The great Healer, Amen. 

The Power of Christ. Strength in Weakness.

Good morning. My name is Lydia Shiu, one of the pastors here at Reservoir Church and I’m going to share some words with you for the next 20 minutes or so about how God relates to us when we are feeling weak. 

But first, I want to take a moment to invite ourselves to the here and now and give you a chance to bring yourself fully to this moment. Maybe close your eyes if you’d like, take a few deep breaths.

How are you landing here today? What are you bringing in here with you to this moment? 

Now imagine walking up to a bookcase. Feel free to place some things on the shelves, maybe worries you have, to do lists, relationships or conflict to resolve, for now, whatever you can let go, place it in the empty bookshelf to give yourself the space to be present to now. 

Let me pray for us. 

Holy and Loving God, who is the source of all things, creator of all things, the beginning and the end. We have come into this space today, I think for a reason. Maybe for an encouragement. Maybe for some light to be shined on to some messy things going on in our lives. Maybe for refreshment. Or maybe we’re not sure what or how we’re doing. But however we find ourselves this morning, you know us, you know where each of us are in our hearts. I pray that you will meet us, by the power of your Holy Spirit that gently and firmly holds us exactly how we need to be held today. Would you meet us here and reveal to us the power of your love. That no matter what we may be going through, that you see us and you know us and move toward us with grace and compassion. We pray in Jesus name, Amen. 

Our Scripture reading today comes from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. This is Paul writing about a thorn on his side, in the midst of his suffering, what Jesus said to him. 

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What do you think of when you think of power? Power to do good. Power to do bad. 

I can’t help but wonder, on this Fourth of July weekend celebrating the Independence Day of the United States of America, how much powerless America once was, as a mere  colony of the British gaining independence, and how that young and scrappy country over the centuries have come to annihilate whole people groups that were natives to the land of North America, enslaved various large people groups from Africa, and some South America, and Asia, and wielded military, political, and social power around the globe in various form to influence for both good and bad in many situations throughout the years. 

And so power can be a tricky thing to define. 

It’s like money. Another one many of us have a complicated relationships with, maybe. I’ve heard a Christian say, “You know, it’s like the Bible says, ‘money is the root of all evil’.” To which I didn’t want to come off annoying as a pastor to correct inaccurate Bible quoting and did not respond with, “Actually it says the “LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” Money and power, often so misunderstood. And so how are we to understand this text about power and weakness? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not a dichotomy, one or the other. It’s an oxymoron, seemingly contradictory but perhaps quite true. 

I love these two verses because it’s so hard to understand. It doesn’t make any sense and yet it makes all the sense. 

You see, I have this question that’s been nagging at me. It knocks and knocks as I scroll through stories of politics under the disguise of Christian values, that’s the same religion as mine, enacting laws that oppress women, known to impact more women of color and more women without financial means. It raps harder and harder as I read any history books on the Christian power that have been at the center of colonialism, erasure of indigenous people, slavery and conversion of nations, mass killings of Jews–This is what I struggle with about my own faith, a faith that has given me such hope and life at most difficult times in my life. But my religion, this question NAGS at me when I pray, when I read the Bible, when I think about God and my world. How do I reconcile with the religion that has been the center of power for oppression, violence, and abuse?

How do we reconcile with the religion that has been the center of power for oppression, violence, and abuse?

How do I make sense of this when I have seen people, powerful people, use “Christ’s Power” to further insult people, keep people weak, persecute the LGBTQIA community, lock people into poverty and the criminal injustice system, instead of liberating them and raising them up, and loving them and embracing them, including them at the table? 

It doesn’t add up to this 2nd Corinthians chapters 10 verse 9-10. 

I don’t see weakness, and gentleness, and mercy, and grace under the banner of Christianity in America today. I see gun clenched hands that insist, “don’t take away my right and my power to kill if I need to at any time.” 

And I’m sorry but it does not make me feel good to see the sweet face of Jesus, bulked up in muscles and wrapped up in guns and the American flag, because that name Jesus is so sweet and tender to me. The Jesus I know?

Jesus came for the sick

Luke 5:31

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

He said that’s why he came, for the sick. 

Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us that all the parables speak of this, in her book called, “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.” 

She says,

“The parable of the creditor who freely remits the debts of those who cannot pay… Or the gracious goodness of God by stressing that women, even public sinners, can be admitted to the Jesus movement in the conviction that “they will love more”.”

Cause Jesus said in

Luke 7:47

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.

Jesus came for the sick. The debtor. The sinner. 

Yes, listen to the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Luke 15:3-10

3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders

6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Jesus came for the 1 lost one. 

And Jesus goes on to say in The Parable of the Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?

9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’

10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Dr. Fiorenza says this,

“Jesus thus images God as a woman searching for one of her ten coins, as a woman looking for her money that is terribly important to her. In telling the parable of the woman desperately searching for her money, Jesus articulates God’s own concern, a concern that determines Jesus’ own praxis for table community with sinners and outcasts. The parable then challenges the hearer: do you agree with the attitude of God expressed in the woman’s search for her lost “capital”?”

Do you? Are we?… Concerned with power, strength, security, prosperity, of our own, or are we boasting, prioritizing, and centering the stories of those who are weak, insulted, facing hardship, persecutions, difficulties? Where do we put our attention? 

You know what’s really powerful? 

In the book Know My Name by Chanel Miller, a memoir of the Stanford rape victim that happened in 2015 talks about power and the courage of rape victims. 

I couldn’t find the quote because the book was on hold for like 25 weeks on the library app. She was the Emily Doe behind the viral Victim Impact Statement that was viewed 15 million times within five days of its publication in 2016. Years later, she wrote a memoir and in it she said that it doesn’t take anything to scoff. It doesn’t take any energy or effort to unleash mean, snarky, sarcastic comments. It’s easier to do that.  It does take so much strength and courage, lots of patience and will power to withhold one ‘s pain and anger, especially when it’s instigated or when you’re cornered.

Miller talks about the unmitigated sneer and anger of men in the courtrooms versus the withholding of emotions of women victims that’s churning a sea of distress just underneath the witness stand’s surface. And how that courage is often not credited but instead questioned as, “see it didn’t impact her at all.” or “why is she talking about this so many years later” rather than seeing the strength it takes to tell the story of her possibly worst moment at all. 

You know when you’re in an argument, not saying the most hurtful thing is the art of peace that I have not mastered. It takes every ounce of me connecting myself to my breath in and breath out to not react out of fangs of my teeth when someone really hurts me. When something really upsets me, I have to try my hardest to not take it out on the people closest to me because it’s not their fault. It’s easier to take it out on them. It’s harder to not react. 

Do you think God was weak to let Jesus die? You think Jesus let them beat him and hang him on the cross because he was a coward? No, many of us who have been won by the love of Christ know the power of the cross already. God was able to do that because of God’s power of love. I think God’s power of love led Jesus to a place of aligning himself with utter vulnerability, one who is pushed out by the people, tried as a criminal by the state, and executed publicly. 

Social researcher, Brene Brown has taught us about the power of vulnerability, she says,

“Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.”

She also said,

Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Isn’t it weird? How it works? That to experience difficulties, and to be weak, is when actually we are strong? Paradox is such a funny concept! 

It’s like when you’re white knuckling through life, you’re actually trying too hard to be in control that your body is stiff and you’re just working so hard and trying to get everything in order only to find yourself in the middle of 10,000 plates spinning, and they’re all about to fall apart. Whereas if only, you had taken the time, slowed down to take deep breaths, being mindful of what’s really important and what’s really happening, that the one plate you spin is giving you flow in ease in life that you even begin to relax and rest and smile. 

So I’m starting to get to the age where I’m reading articles in The Atlantic titled, The Two Choices That Keep a Midlife Crisis at Bay. The first choice I didn’t really get but the second, the writer Arthur C. Brooks said this:

The second decision: Choose subtraction, not addition. Early in life, success usually comes from addition: more money, more responsibility, more relationships, more possessions. Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better. This explains why studies find that the most common concerns reported by middle-aged adults involve getting everything done in their busy life, their energy level, job complications, and insufficient sleep.”

Subtraction not addition. Another way to put it, maybe more letting go. More surrendering. Not powering up but maybe taking the backseat, slowing down. And with life, sometimes it forces you to take the back seat with setbacks or hardships or health problems. 

Last week I was driving my daughter to gymnastics. Which apparently is watching Jungle Book together on a bouncy mat. Anyways. I was struggling to get out the door, wanting to feed the little brother as much milk as possible, cause he needs to grow, and wanted to do her hair so it doesn’t get in her face when she’s doing her tumble on the bar, wanting to make sure she had the right outfit so she’s not the only one in a big tshirt and pajama pants when all the other girls had rainbow color leotards. I buckled my seatbelts and pulled out of the driveway and may or may not have breathed out a quiet curse word as I saw my eta on the gps. 

I was on that one street in Belmont, you know the one right at the bridge, after all the shops, omg I hate that intersection. It has no stop signs, no lights, and people are coming from all different directions and turning into the street. 8:30am. Rush hour. We’re bumper to bumper, all inching forward, and I’m gonna turn left at the next street, and I see that that lane, it’s wide open. I’m so swift, I see it, no one else sees it, everyone else is just stuck right here in this lane, and I’m like I’m going for it. I change lanes and I’m free and BAM the car in front of me thought the same thing right after me and hit me. 

We were okay. Just a little side swipe. I ended up being 30 minutes late instead of five. Poor girl Sophia was crying going, “when are we going to gymnastics?” 

Setback. I was so humbled. I thought I was a super mom, trying to get everything and rush. Instead I was a mess. It would’ve been better if I was just a little less in a rush, going a little slower, and not white knuckling my steering wheel the whole drive. 

How can we turn this *white knuckling* into this *open hands* or this *hands on heart*. That Christ’s power may REST, it says REST, not rise up and broadcasted , but Christ’s power may rest on us. Let’s not man up. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s not be cool, let’s be warm. Let’s not be super moms but late to gymnastics mom driving slowly. Let’s let Christ’s power rest on all of our limitations, shortcomings, struggles, difficulties. Because God’s grace is sufficient for us. God’s grace is enough for you, yes, even you. Will you let God pour into your empty cup and overflow their abundant gracious merciful love? Especially when you’re weak, God will meet you there, and make you strong. For when I am weak. I am strong. For when I am weak. I am strong. May that be true for us my friends, may you be strengthened in your weakness. 

Let me pray for us. 

God, author of our lives. As we stumble through our chapters, would you remind us of the big throughline that runs through it all. Your love. Your grace. Whether in the heights of our career, place in life, love life, influence in community or whatever, or in the depths of our own addiction, struggling in depression and loneliness, battling through a difficult marriage, watching our parents or children in pain of their own lives, whatever may befall, God will you humble us and lifts us up? Will you comfort us and give us strength? We’re such beautiful messes, but through your power, make us perfect. Really? Yeah make us perfect, we ask you this in your precious and holy name, who was crucified and resurrected, Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Healing the World | Humility

About a year ago I came across a grass roots movement called “Healing Our City” – it is centered in Minneapolis, and had begun actually the summer before in May of 2020, as a response to the traumatic death and murder of George Floyd. 

In that year – this movement provided 30 Days of Silent Prayer in a physical tent in North Minneapolis. A month-long, African-American-led collaborative… conceived to add this vital spiritual element – to all the strategic thinking, policy proposals, and investments that were being considered at the time to address the multi-layers of trauma that were being experienced in this city. www.healingourcity.org/about2020prayertent

It was a shared public ritual where people of all faiths and good will came together throughout the day for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent prayer/meditation.  Over the course of 30 days, this prayer tent became a place to collectively grieve, to remain somehow – open to change, and pray for a new future.  

Last year – in 2021 (when I came across this),  this space evolved into a virtual space – where there was intentional daily prayer and meditation during the trial of Derek Chauvin. The city was humbly learning how not just to consider responding to tragedy, but how they might proactively create wholeness and live together in beloved community as people of goodwill… wherever they are and whoever they are.  They were pressing in to discover together how to heal.

The reflections and prayers were offered by leaders – mostly in the Minneapolis area – and some by folks who have given their lives to this fight of justice, like Ruby Sales and Don & Sondra Samuels, and others who are fresh, young powerful voices. Cole Arthur Riley (black liturgies), Krista Tippett – as well as Rabbis and Muslims and Buddhists, Hmong speakers, and Reverends, community organizers, teachers, writers, poets…  of all faiths, denominations, races, and orientations were part of this movement. Expansive and inclusive… and hinged on this notion of being together, not alone.

Led by the spirit to be alongside one another and “stay with it.”

There are over 90 of these daily prayers/reflections that you can view if you subscribe to their youtube channel, “Healing our city.” And what’s been most meaningful to me, as I’ve watched and rewatched so many of these only the thoughtfulness of each person’s presence and words – but it is the collective leaning to come together with humility and say, “where is God in all of this?” and “who is God to us?”. . .and “how does that help us mend our way forward?”  

How do we grow the Beloved Community?

How do we create the kin-dom of God? 

How do we whole-heartedly proclaim “all shall be well?”   

How do these sentiments not just hang out as abstractions, but become tangible/practical ways by which we live, ways to keep healing? And how do we keep that at the forefront of our minds and in our hearts… as we move about our world, in our communities, and love Jesus? 

That’s exactly what we have been talking about in this spring mini-series, called How to Heal the World. It’s in some part a daunting title, and an inspiring title – and an all together TIMELY and timeless title. As you may have noticed… this title doesn’t have a question mark at the end. It’s not “How to Heal the World?” It’s How to Heal the World .. Period. It’s a statement – a prophetic statement perhaps – and a given at the center of our faith – at the center of our lives, as followers of Jesus.

It is the work we are called to be part of.




Therein lies a lot of questions… 

How will we create these tents of healing? Whether they are physical like Minneapolis. .. or metaphorical in some way?

How will we participate and partner with God for the healing of the world?
How will we humbly come alongside one another to learn, to unlearn, to change, to believe for that which we can not see – but only imagine? 

How will we allow our faith to do what faith is intended to do – to expand, adapt, flex and be the force that it can be … of good and repair.

The author and feminist, bell hooks said in her book All About Love – that

rarely any of us are healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” (215) 

I think these folks in Minneapolis know what they are doing.. To talk to one another , regard it as prayer. To hold the one whose voices, lives, and beings are most oppressed – in view, with love…. Because love that participates in justice is the way to wholeness and healing.

Today we are going to talk about the value of humility and the reality of  power. And these questions,

“Who is God to us? Where is God ?”

.. as we take a look at the story of Philip and the Eunuch from Acts and see how it might help expand how we find our way into the ongoing call to Heal the World. 


Thank you Jesus for this day. Let us be glad for the opportunity to be “more today ….than we were yesterday.” Thank you for the spirit of God that nudges us into greater spaces of learning – inside of ourselves and for the wellness of the world around us.  For those of us who are tired today, who are grieving today – give us rest, let our souls find comfort in your presence – that asks of us nothing, and yet provides us everything.


*Credit fnor this translation and many of the thoughts to follow to Pádraig o’Tuama. May 2, 2021, YouTube.

Oe of the reflections that was offered last year by this “Healing Our City” movement was by Padraig O’Tuama – an Irish poet-theologian, a scholar,  who has spent years working at the intersection of power, conflict and healing.

He also presents Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, which is situated in Minneapolis.  I consider Padraig a friend, we shared a bit of whisky in a pub in Ballyvaughan, Ireland (which seems as good friend-making material as any). Padraig hasn’t officially weighed in on the status of our relationship – but we talked a little bit about liturgy, story and leadership  – which I hope in his view is the stuff of friendship as well… 

Anyway – he offered some thoughts on the passage we are going to read together, some thoughts about healing particularly.  And some thoughts about the “healing” of Philip – as much as I have ascribed to the eunuch.

Let’s read together.

Acts 8:26 – 40 (Common English Bible)

26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take[a] the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.)

27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.)

28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage.

29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”

30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.

32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter

    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent

    so he didn’t open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.

    Who can tell the story of his descendants

        because his life was taken from the earth?[b]

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?”

35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him.

36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.

37 The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?”[c]

38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 

Now Philip is a follower of Jesus. He, like many followers of Jesus, has left Jerusalem as the early church is taking shape in Acts.

There is much persecution that is happening in and around Jerusalem – and the “good news of Jesus” is meant to be taken beyond Jerusalem, to Judea, and to Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.

So Philip ends up traveling north  to Samaria.  Home to the Samaritans. He moves in and lives there – despite historical deep lines of division and hate between Samaritans and Jewish people. Philip shares the love and goodness of Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit the people of Samaria listen and many of them get baptized.

He loves God and loves others, even his enemies, and he brings the good news of Jesus wherever he goes.

And so most of these stories go. The spread of the “Good news,” you move into an area where no one has heard such a Jesus message.. And you spread it, you deliver this important message.

It’s how the stories went for me as a kid – a young one learning about God.  I absorbed that one of the primary duties – as a follower of Jesus –  was to bring the “message” of God to other people. We had missionaries that would come to our church and share slideshows and stories about the travels that they had taken.

Converting, saving, the wayward from a life of certain demise.  Our church’s name was Wayside Church – so we really went for the “wayward” language a lot to differentiate ourselves .. “us”, the sure/the certain/the right/ the powerful (on the inside).. From “them” –  the ones (on the outside) who were lost.

Padraig says, that’s often as far as an interpretation of a scripture like this story of the eunuch and Philip would go… Philip is out for a walk, comes alongside a carriage – hears a man reading from the scriptures.  Philip is the one with a message that can help…

“Do you know what you are reading?” “Oh you don’t – let me hop in and tell you.”

And the conversation that ensues – Padraig says – is on the grounds of a “converting conversation”.  

And it is no more original than the missionary stories I heard growing up – the ones that were heroic and doing the real work of Jesus –  saving lives, counting them – “one, two, three, ten , a whole family, a village… “  I’d pray and pray – and cry in secret, “God please don’t send me anywhere I don’t want to do this … 

Somewhere I knew that this way of “messaging” the good news – was one that offered no humility, no freedom, no choice… it was a message meant to convert (with power over – not a transformation of the heart), heavy with an agenda – it had an end goal.  And the tenor was, “You need to accept this message- by force or friendship – and this of course as Padraig says, over time has  affected “culture, language, politics, land, families, relationships, livelihoods…”

So Padraig offers that perhaps this is not what this story is about. It’s not about Philip going and saving the eunuch, this Ethiopian man… Perhaps instead, this story is about healing – he says –  a kind of healing that goes to the roots.

When Philip gets into the carriage – and as the standard story would go – the eunuch is the one that is healed. Philip is praised for his effective discipleship, his messaging of the good news. .. a good student of Jesus.

And it makes sense to think the Ethiopian man is the one that needs the saving/ the help/ the good news – he’s a,eunuch, he was likely castrated at a young age, likely against his will.. and made “other” in gender, and body and regarded as a sexual minority.

He’s also a high up official in Candace’s – the queen of Ethiopia’s court. He’s come to Jerusalem (likely a two month ordeal) to worship, and yet he arrives at the temple and is not permitted to enter. 

  • In the law of Moses – Deuteronomy 23:1 – it says
  • “no one emasculated by crushing or cutting can enter the assembly of the Lord.”

  • He’s rejected, excluded – the message that has greeted him is that
  • “he is forbidden to join the family of God.”

  • And it seems kind, and obvious – to offer a different message – one about Jesus.

And yet, the scripture that this Ethiopian man is reading is about a Lamb – who also has had a blade held to its body… 

And the Ethiopian man asks Philip,

“about whom is this text speaking?” Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?”

He asks, “Is the prophet talking about someone like me?”

Padraig says it’s

“all well and good to talk about sacrificial lambs when you are thinking abstractly.”

Here though Philip is being converted as he is brought face to face with a person – who when in their own body has been brought close to a weapon. Where a weapon has been pressed against their body.

Philip here – is being invited to rethink what he thinks he’s talking about.

When I met my *now* husband Scott – I had been away from the church of my youth for a bit.. But the way of thinking about God, and faith that my church had defined for me – was not far from me.

This would become evident in our endless conversations about faith and spirituality. Scott, an agnostic at the time, would press me on my “positions” and issues and “platforms” that I backed always by some great zinger as it related to truth. He was always bringing in a story or a name of a person and would ask,

“well how does this person’s story fit into your thinking? Or what would you say to this person if they were here?”

Bringing my beliefs from the abstract into the concrete.. human lives.  And again and again I would be invited by Scott’s inquiry to rethink what I thought I was talking about.  And he’d always say,

“and who is God to you, Ivy?”

The eunuch here is attempting to infuse faith with encounter. With a face. Asking Philip how does this scripture that you’ve read, that you know – translate as you see it in the flesh? In human form?  Here I am:

“a sheep led to slaughter” 

“A person humiliated and mocked for being different”  

 “a person with no descendants”

“Where is God?” “Who is God to you, Philip?” “What do you think about who God should be to me?”

He invites Philip to go back and look at his faith before it becomes reduced to a system of abstractions and beliefs. Maybe asking Philip, “How can you stretch your faith to be a series of stories and as a series of encounters. How can you value me, my story  – this encounter with me… as much as being “right” about what you’ve learned about God or faith or scripture.  

“This Ethiopian man is not in need of any conversion. But Philip – this early missionary, most definitely is.” (PO’T)

Padraig says,

“The Ethiopian man was not the one that was saved that day. He was fine as he was – reading, thinking, asking questions – pursuing his own curiosity and intelligence and interests..”

The person that was saved – was the person who’s imagination was in need of expansion – Philip – the follower of Jesus – perhaps the one that thought he had the message – or even more dangerously thought that he “was the message.”

Philip goes back with a message – the message wasn’t about this Ethiopian man – the message was about his understanding about what POWER was – b/c he had been converted and healed into a better understanding of power, justice, inclusion, equality , equity.” (PO’T)

So here we can witness that Philip – the person who thought that they had the message to give, was the one that most needed the message themselves.

It can seem mostly harmless to tell this story as Philip is being praised for engaging with this Ethiopian man.  But when we nestle our understanding of scripture through the lens of a colonialist mindset  – one that values power, control, domination, conversion as a sign of spiritual status, or holiness… We injure, we harm, we erase story, people. . . lives.  

Healthy faith is always humble about its own holiness and knowledge. It knows that it does not know. 

It knows that Jesus sat with people at tables, in storms, in fields, at their feet, in temples and streets, at gates and in grief, in birth and unto death..Jesus’ message is to be with, to share , to be alongside – not OVER. 

A healthy faith is what the eunuch saves Philip u/into – into a non-conquering, non-fearful faith – a humble faith.  A faith that reminds us that power is demonstrated in the capacity to learn and to adapt and to see and take in WHO is in front of you.  To enter the prayer tent, or chariot of another… (upon invitation)… especially those that we have othered.. And listen, “repent,” act differently … this is the healing here in this scripture. 

A healing of the arrogance of entitled posture – and an invitation to a posture of humility and repentance and awareness of your own limitations… of how much we have to learn (and unlearn) – and how much harm has been done in imagining and ACTING as though we are right.

How much we have to learn even when we think we’ve gotten scripture “right”

How much we have to learn, even when we think we know all there is to know about another’s story – where we think we’ve gotten individual people and groups of people “right.” Knowing what’s good for them. Defining who God is for them.

How much we have to learn when we think we’ve gotten God right. 

If we try to claim it. If we say we understand it. If we try to own it. Control it. If we declare “Power” because of it… Then IT. IS. NOT. GOD. (riff on St. Augustine of Hippo). 

And this is the importance I think of imagining that Philip is the one healed here. Because it gives all of us followers of Jesus a chance to see that humility is a way forward, humility is a way to heal the disrepair that has been rippling through Christianity, our society, our world. It is not a value by which we become doormats, or silent, or apathetic – but it is an essential component by which we keep the face of the other, and thereby the face of God in view.

We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves what we do not know. 

Instead of clinging to certitudes on every side of every question – could we enter into conversations with humbleness, curiosity, an openness to unlearn – to listen. We don’t know exactly how Philip responded to the Eunuch’s question of “who is this scripture about a lamb being slaughtered?” But we can imagine that it provoked an  internal movement for Philip from,  “oh wait -this could be you.. To this IS you.” The word became flesh indeed. 

And maybe then Philip explains some of how he’s understood scripture, of who God has been to him… speaks of his own experience of faith, of what he’s challenged by or inspired by…

We can gather that something stirred in Philip because the Ethiopian man says – here’s some water – “what’s to stop me from being baptized?”

And if Philip had stuck to the law – much like the Ethiopian man’s temple experience – there would have been a lot that would have prevented him from being baptized.   

But perhaps Philip knew then the power of being more loving than “more right.”

Perhaps the law he had also read many times, came to life in him – where it says, “to the eunuchs I will give a name that will not be cut off… a name that will last from generation to generation.” (Isaiah 56:4)  Maybe Philip wanted to be part of that healing, that mending a way forward… the naming of a nameless man… as a child of God, as he comes up from the water.

The good news of God embodied, and carried onward-  living in generations to come.

The message of the Hebrew scriptures has always been about the evolution of a more just world. The dismantling of power – where power has defined what law/order looks like – and as Padraig says, “what “right” and rights looks like.” 

Here at Reservoir humility is one of our core values. .. . we not only acknowledge but we are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including scripture, reason, culture, and experience, and we take the posture of learners, recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth continues to unfold. .. as we evolve, change and grow.

Recognizing that our “knowing” of God is only that we can not fully “know” God. 

And our best shot at knowing anything of God is by staying in connection with one another. It is by running alongside the chariot, the honored space of another’s story… and as the Holy Spirit says to Philip in this text, “STAYING WITH IT”….running for as long as we have to… listening as best we can – and maybe somewhere along that journey being invited in… 

A world without humility is rife with arrogance, inflated pride, ego, unchecked power, uninspected motives, hearts that harden… law that becomes stone. 

Scripture that becomes weapons… 

Scripture that is held against people’s bodies, cutting off their rights to be fully human.

This is the history of whiteness – in our country.

Twisted and wrapped around faith.. 

Obsessed with “rightness” – over right relationships with one another & God.

Obsessed with domination over humanity.

It doesn’t just wound.

It harms.

It destroys.

It erases all that makes us human – our stories, our voice, our hearts, our face – 

Without humility – we continue to live in a world of abstraction.

Without humility –  our world does not heal.

And this is frustrating and dangerous. 

Just in the last couple of weeks I have heard two stories of people being excommunicated from their communities of faith… over gender equality and LGBTQIA inclusion … here and now. 

In greater Boston.

Their rejection. 

Their grief.

Their disorientations are not abstractions.

It is here  – in the absence of humility – where the breeding ground of violence really takes off, if power is threatened. And maybe that’s why Padraig’s take on this scripture and Philip being the one that is healed is so moving to me – because it calls into view the work so many of us as white Christians, still have to do – and continues to showcase how violence can overtake and become extreme when the roots of our faith, our country, ourselves are not uprooted and examined – and untwisted from the legacy of white supremacy.

On Friday of last week, in Dallas – three Korean women were shot in a hate-motivated gun shooting.

Those three human beings are not abstractions.

On Sunday last week one person was shot and killed, and five were injured – at a Presbyterian Church in Orange County.

Those six people are not abstractions.

On Saturday of last week, in Buffalo – 10 Black people were shot and killed in a racist hate-motivated gun shooting.

Aaron Salter

Katherine Massey

Celestine Chaney

Roberta Drury

Pearly Young

Ruth Whitfield

Heyward Patterson

Margus D. Morrison

Andrew Mackneil

Geraldine Talley

Were not abstractions.

Humility is a way to digest the message of God – it is a way to embody God, it will take our constant conversion (moment by moment heart transformation), but may be a potent way forward in healing our world.  These folks in Minneapolis, “Healing Our City”, inspire me to keep the faces of those in our midst in view – the ones who have weapons drawn against their bodies, the ones who have for centuries been led like sheep to the slaughter –  and erect wherever we can tents for grief, change and action. 

And may our faith be this tent too – held up by humility, and an unwavering commitment to collective healing.

In Proverbs 22:4 it says,

‘The reward for humility and loving God, is riches and honor and LIFE’ 

may it be so. 

An effort to mend and heal:

In what areas of either learning/or unlearning do you feel like the spirit is calling you to “stay with it?”  What does this look like on a practical level for you? Whose companionship might you need? What resources could you use?


The Healing Waters

In my late 30s, I was a high school principal for a few years. And when I was interviewing for the job, it was clear that some of the faculty of the school wanted a “tough guy” kind of principal. They told me that the next year’s senior class was horrible but that even worse were the incoming ninth graders. There were a lot of kids who’d need keeping in line. 

And I remember responding like: Alright, how about we all meet these 14 year olds we’re talking about first and get to know their names and create a good community together, and then we can see what kind of problems we need to solve?

And some of them liked this answer, and some of them – maybe especially some of the veterans who were older than me – sort of eye rolled and made it clear they were thinking, you’ll see, young guy, you’ll see.

Well, fast forward a year or so, and one of those ninth graders – who had been making and getting in all kinds of trouble again and again, serious trouble, well one of his parents died. And he wasn’t in school, but I was informed about this, knowing this would have an impact on him and on his friends too.

Another person who heard this news was a school social worker named Mike I had come to admire. And what Mike did that day is he pulled together some of the boys he worked with in that grade, all friends with the kid who’s lost his parent. And Mike invited me to the group he was leading that day, to watch and to participate.

So I sat in a circle in the basement of the school that afternoon with my colleague Mike and five or 10 teenage boys, who were to a person some of the more challenging kids in the school – kids with bad grades, kids with attendance and discipline problems, kids people met about and talked about a lot. 

And I don’t remember Mike’s exact words, but he looked at the kids and said something like:

What are you feeling? Where does it hurt? 

And the kids, my God, they were like:

I can’t believe my friend is going through this. Do you know how much he’s faced in his life already? What can I do to help?

And other kids were like:

I know this about so and so, but man, this reminds me of when my parent or uncle or sibling died.

And they shared about loss and trauma they were feeling.

And Mike just kept looking every kid in the eye and saying:

It’s OK. It’s good to feel this. Life’s hard sometimes, but you’re going to be alright. It’s OK. 

And I just kept thanking them for letting me be there and letting me listen too and letting me understand them a little more.

It was one of my holiest moments in my work there, as I watched Mike making a safe community by helping it be a healing community.

We need more healing communities. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today: healing communities and the questions that make space for healing. We’ve got two more weeks until Easter. And we’re at the start of the 5th week of this spring season we’ve called Waters of Life.

And this talk on Jesus our healer, and on healing communities is I hope helpful to you in each of the communities you’re part of, this church community included. And there is more where this comes from in the daily readings and reflections that are in our guide you can access at reservoirchurch.org 

Today we meet Jesus the healer, Jesus who asked questions, questions like:

What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And do you want to be made well?

Let’s read today’s scripture, from the fifth chapter of John’s memoirs of the life of Jesus.

John 5:2-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.

3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.

5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

There’s a lot going on in this story, but let’s start by noticing Jesus’ first words.

Do you want to be made well? 

In the mouth of some people, these could maybe be pushy or judgy words. Like: hey, why are you still sitting here? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to get better?

But we’ll see with Jesus over his life, that he’s not like that at all. Rather, he asking questions because he’s really present – he notices people. And he’s compassionately curious about what they’re experiencing. And he’s interested in them finding their voice and being listened to. So he asks things, like in this case:

Do you want to be made well?

Jesus loved asking questions. My friend Carl who’s spoken at our church before says that

If you want to follow Jesus, one really practical way to do that is by asking more questions when you talk with people. 

Earlier in John, Jesus was meeting with some potential students and rather than giving them a recruiting pitch or an introduction to who he was and what he was about, he simply asked:

What are you looking for? 

I experienced someone asking me this recently. I was meeting with a new spiritual director I was going to work with. This is like a pastor to a pastor. We sat down together in a quiet, mostly empty room, and after a moment or two of silence, he took a breath, looked at me carefully and just asked,

So, what are you looking for?

And that question unlocked things I didn’t even know I needed to say. And over the course of an hour, he listened and asked another question here and there, and then listened some more. At one point, I think he said:

My job is to be the keeper of the questions. 

And in his kindness and attention and listening, I felt like I was sitting with Jesus. And the safety and trust in that brought the truth out of me. And that helped bring me peace. It was healing for me.

Now when we talk about healing, we’re really talking about a lot of things. This is true when we read and think about Jesus as a healer too. 

There are many stories of people walking away from their encounters with Jesus physically more healthy and well than before. He was known as a faith healer in his time, for sure. Skeptical as people in the developed world have been about these stories over the past two, three hundred years, accounts of faith healings – both ancient and modern – are not every day, but also not rare. We’re learning a lot now about how pain and sickness and mind and spirit interact. So just as there are lots of reasons people hurt and get sick, there are lots of ways people get well too. 

I think Jesus did cure many. Still, though, even in this scene there are many profoundly disabled people whose conditions are not changed, and each of the few times in the gospel of John a person does have greater health after their encounter with Jesus, John indicates that Jesus thinks what’s happening in their mind and relationships with God and community are at least as important as their physical cure. Jesus would often tell people too that it wasn’t him, that it was their faith that healed them.

I mean think of the power of this man’s experience. He’s been languishing for decades, for whatever reason a shell of what he was when he was young. And Jesus asks him:

Do you want to be made well?

And he can’t even answer. There’s too much hurt, too much stuck. He can only say:

I can’t, Jesus, I can’t. No one is here for me. 

To which Jesus responds:

This is your day. You can do it.

And he doesn’t just walk, he finds his power back, his agency. His I can’t becomes, with the help of God, I can. 

It might help us when we talk about stories like this to distinguish between two words – curing and healing. 

Curing is more specific. Curing is restoration of physical health or a removal of physical pain. On rare occasions in the gospels, Jesus cures someone of their physical maladies. That continues to be the case through faith healers and traditional medicines throughout the world. People are cured in ways and for reasons that modern medicine can only partly understand. Most of us, we mostly go to physicians and pharmacies for cures for our pains and diseases. Mostly, they are pretty good at what they do. Thank God for modern medicine. We live in the best time in human history for curing our diseases.

Healing, though, is a broader word. Sometimes healing is cure: the pain goes away, all is restored. And sometimes healing involves other changes of conditions or changes of resistance. Something we weren’t looking for gets better or grows. Or we find new peace with the way things fall apart. 

When I talk about Jesus’ power to heal, and our capacity with the help of God to participate in healing communities, I mean healing in this broader sense. This sense of wellness and wholeness that is deeper or wider than the kind of diagnosis or help we might get in a hospital. 

One of our modern teachers in this type of healing is the civil rights icon and the minister and the theologian, Ruby Sales. Ruby Sales was a child participant in the marches and prayer meetings of the Southern freedom movement of the 50s and the 60s. She was raised on the faith of an Almighty God whose power never fails, who makes a way where there is no way, who always comes through.

But there were times when that God as she understood God didn’t seem to come through in power, and she found herself walking away from faith for a while or at least from that kind of faith. Until she started to see the presence and the power of God differently. She was at the hairdresser’s one day, and the hairdresser’s daughter came in, looking a mess, just coming in after being out all night, high on drugs still. And Ruby Sales noticed a sore on her body too, and just found herself asking her friend’s daughter:

Where does it hurt? Where does it hurt, child? 

And a story started coming out, a story not of the night before but of the years before, a story of pain and hurt and abuse, some of which her own mother had never heard. And this opened up space to be known and to be touched and to start to heal because when the truth about you is held with care and grace and kindness, it is true that the truth will set you free. 

And Ruby Sales saw that God was with this daughter of her friend and that God had always been with her –even if the power of God and the way God moves and works and heals isn’t so controlling or always so obvious as she had once thought. And that was a part of Ruby Sales’ return to faith as well, asking:

Where does it hurt?

And seeing God there with healing in the all that pain.

We’ll meet Ruby Sales more in this weeks’ guide. There are quotes from her to accompany the scriptures this week. And Ruby Sales’ voice will show up in our service next Sunday again too. 

What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And would you like to be made well? 

I wished I used those questions more when I was a principal. I wish I was more like Ruby Sales, more like my friend Mike, more of a healer. One of the first students I met as a principal was a young man who came to see me in my office in August, before my first school year in that city even began. He came with an older friend of his. They had both been born in another country, and they had both immigrated as children to this same city. And the young man seeing me desperately wanted to compete in athletics that fall. He was good at this sport, he said. And his friend looked at me and said:

Mr. Watson, this is really true. He isn’t just good. He’s great. He’s really special.

But the problem was this young man’s grades were bad, really bad. I pulled up his transcript and I wasn’t sure I’d seen one quite like it. Failure, after failure, after failure. Really high rates of absence. And I explained to him, with these grades, you’re not allowed to play.

And his friend said:

But Mr. Watson, it’s not his fault.

And he told me some of the tragedy of this young man’s life, the losses and traumas he’d known already, the ways he was to some degree alone in the world while still a child.

And I listened with great interest and care and compassion, but said still:

There is nothing I can do. The rules are the rules. Let’s work on your grades, and you can play next year.

And he left my office with his friend, crestfallen. It would be a while before we’d speak again. 

In what I said, I was right. I was under authorities bigger than me in this, and there was no way he could play that season. But it was in what I didn’t say that I failed him. Not just then, but again later. I remember a time when this same guy showed up high, like really really high, at a big school event, and I suspended him, again following the rules for what happened. 

I wish I knew better, I wish I had thought to look him in the eye and say:

Young man, tell me, what are you looking for? And please tell me, where does it hurt? Where does it hurt?

And asking:

Would you like to be well? 

I knew these questions, part of me did. But I was too insecure as a young principal to relate with this kind of presence and power and freedom and the time. I was too focused on the angry voices that wanted me to achieve order, too focused on fixing and curing to be the healer I was called to be. 

Mercifully, when God wants us to learn something we’re not ready to learn, it sometimes comes back around for us. Spirit of God is a patient, persistent teacher.

Years later I’d spend time with my friend Mike again outside the school, in a running club for folks in recovery. 

Most of the people I ran with were in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse and addiction. And that would come up and they’d ask me about my story sometimes, and I didn’t have a good answer at first. Because the truth was I had never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I had my own hurts and stresses, and I was craving a healing community to run with. I was craving spaces where we could be really honest with our hurts and weaknesses and be accepted and encouraged just as we are. 

So I made a few friends in this club, and in a group I was co-leading in this church at the time too that had something of a recovery group feel to it. And this time, I knew not to try to fix or cure, but just to ask my friends:

What’s your story? Where does it hurt?

And to share some about my story too. 

These were places where we could talk about where it hurts, where it was safe to tell our stories and speak out truth, where people listened without trying to fix us, and where that kindness and connection would sometimes give someone the courage to dare to try to be well.

Don’t get me wrong, even in healing communities, not everyone gets well. Mistakes happen, sometimes pains are too great, hurts are too deep. Life can be hard. I’ve seen a few tragic outcomes, even in healing communities. But I’ve seen some pretty beautiful stories too. 

My friend Mike himself comes from a lot of pain, from a tough, hard start in life. But he’s a wounded healer, living more and more joy in every season of life, and helping other people get free.

Me too in my own way. I’ve had a lot of pain in me. But every year, I’m living more and more free. And it’s so good. It’s so good. And it’s all because of the kindness of God and the kindness of friends showing up for me, asking me:

Where does it hurt?

And giving me the courage to do the work it takes to be well. 

Friends, we need healing communities. Because there is an ocean of pain and hurt out there, there is for some of us an ocean of pain and hurt in here too. 

And these lives of ours are like a garden. So much crap grows out of unhealed hurt. Inside pretty much every bad person is a kid that’s still hurting. But these same lives, when we’re healing, so much good can grow. 

We all heard about the whole Chris Rock, Will Smith joke and slap event at the Oscars. All kinds of hot takes on that. I don’t have one. Powerful Black writers and thinkers like Roxanne Gay and Kareem Abdul Jabaar have had more and better to say than I ever will. I do know from them, from Black friends and colleagues too that there was an ocean of hurt bound up behind all that happened there and what it stood for too.

But you know what Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s partner, did this week. A single one sentence statement out on her instagram. She just wrote,

“This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.” 

What if that’s true, what if this is a season for healing, and we can be here for it. 

What if it’s time to look at our own lives and ask:

Where does it hurt? What am I looking for? Am I ready to be well?

And to hold those questions before a loving God, maybe before a loving friend or two as well, and see where they take us. 

And maybe it’s time to offer this too in our families, amongst our friends, in this community of Reservoir – to when we see someone struggling, to not avoid or ignore it, to not try to fix or criticize, but to in our own way ask:

Where does it hurt, my friend? What are you looking for?

And to pray for someone and walk with them as they ask:

Do I want to be made well?

And find their way forward. 

We’ll close right now as we’ve been doing each week in Lent, with a little foretaste of the daily prayer practice in our guide. We’ll put on a bit of the music Matt has written for us. And I’ll ask us these three questions of Jesus to let sit in our hearts as we pray. 

What are you looking for?

Where does it hurt?

And would you like to be made well?

Love Is a Sunflower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I knew you could do that, sunflower.”

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, I tell them,

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

I’m pretty proud of that advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus says,

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

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

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

That’s what I mean by the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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