How Is Wisdom Calling Out to You?

In my first month as a high school principal, I inherited a master schedule that was pretty messed up. A lot of kids didn’t have the classes they would need in less than two months. The former administration that had built the schedule were either retired or laid off. And not many people work in schools in July and August. So I had just a few weeks to learn a scheduling software I’d never used before and to fix as much of it as I could. 

There was this one central office administrator who knew this computer program and was working during the summer, and it was her job to show me the ropes. 

Now I can be a difficult student. I like to learn things really quickly, and I have a million questions, and sometimes I struggle to not interrupt people when I really get focused on something. So a few days into working with Marilyn, the district administrator, and she said to me:

Steve, you’re a damn comet. 

I thought she was complimenting me. Comets sound cool. These objects flying through space, looking like they’re stars or on fire or something. And I was pretty sure Marilyn was complimenting me at how fast I was learning and getting stuff done. Comet.

But later I realized I was only like 20% right about this. Because Marilyn was like – it was helpful that you were learning quickly and trying to fix things. But mostly, this is frustrating.

She was like –

You have to slow down. Take a breath. Listen for a while. Slow down, and you’ll learn this thing, and do what you’ve got to do.

I wish I could say I listened to Marilyn’s advice, but I mostly didn’t. I think I tried to convince myself that her whole comet line, which after all she had said “damn comet” and had sounded frustrated when she said it, but still I wanted to think it was a compliment and maybe didn’t listen.

I’d sort of been like this my whole life – that old proverb “haste makes waste” was for other people. When I first got my drivers’ license, I had a number of speeding incidents. And those had cost me money, but never an accident, so maybe it was fine. When I learned to ski, I liked to fly and take jumps and all and I had some spectacular crashes, but no permanent damage, so again, maybe it was OK.

I’ve been a bike commuter most of my adult life, and at that point, my habits on the bicycle were kind of embarrassing. I rode fast, I was really hit or miss about following traffic rules, and when I couldn’t find my helmet now and then, I just rode without it. 

I thought I didn’t need this wisdom, because I was a damn comet, and it was working out OK.

Well, later in that same first year as a principal, I was biking home from work one day. And that was one of the days I was riding without a helmet, because I was rushing to get to work early and couldn’t remember where I’d left it. I was also talking on the phone while I was riding because a student at the school had been getting in trouble, and their dad was an important person on the school committee, and this was kind of an awkward situation for everyone, so I was trying to talk it through with this frustrated dad who was also more or less one of my boss’ bosses, and that made things urgent. 

I wasn’t biking all that fast, but I was on the phone and not paying attention, and I hit a patch of sand left over from the winter storms and started to lose control of my bike. I don’t remember what happened next. Except that I was on the ground, and my head hurt like hell, and I reached back and it was wet and red. I tried to get up and start walking in the direction of my house, and someone walking by yelled at me not to do that and grabbed and started directing me toward the emergency room of the hospital which I was right in front of when I crashed and split my skull open in a couple places.

A few staples and a concussion recovery later, and I thought:

Maybe haste makes waste. Maybe I have to learn to slow down.

So like 14 years later, maybe my head’s not 100% right anymore, and I still rush into action sometimes, but I’m trying. 

Because if you want to reach old age, and you want to not keep getting concussions, you eventually need to listen to wisdom.

Learning wisdom is what makes our lives work. Like however talented we are or not, however attractive, however so-called smart in different ways, our lives don’t work if we don’t grow in wisdom. 

They get stuck. Or they fly off the rails, Or we self-sabotage again and again. And the catch all word for the stuff we learn – not just here, in our head – but in our hearts, in our bodies, in our whole selves – the stuff we learn that makes our lives really work well, that’s wisdom.

And that’s what we’ll talk about in our sermons from now through when summer starts on Memorial Day – what makes life work, as we read together some of this part of the Hebrew scriptures, the Bible’s Old Testament, that is called the wisdom literature. 

The centerpiece of this wisdom literature in the Bible is a collection of all kinds of earthy advice that’s called Proverbs. We’ll read part of its first chapter today. It starts like this:

Proverbs 1:1-7 (Common English Bible)

The proverbs of Solomon, King David’s son, from Israel:
2 Their purpose is to teach wisdom and discipline,
    to help one understand wise sayings.

3 They provide insightful instruction,
    which is righteous, just, and full of integrity.

4 They make the naive mature,
    the young knowledgeable and discreet.

5 The wise hear them and grow in wisdom;
    those with understanding gain guidance.

6 They help one understand proverbs and difficult sayings,
    the words of the wise, and their puzzles.

7 Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

This here is like a title or an introduction. It says these proverbs will teach us what is righteous, just, and full of integrity. What will make us less naive, and more mature. Which sounds old-fashioned maybe or religious, or maybe condescending. But I think the wisdom literature is here to help us develop lives that work. That go about things the right way, that are fair and equitable, that help us be the same, trustworthy person no matter where we are or who we’re with.

It’s like Marilyn saying to me –

try and stop being such a damn comet.

You’ll burn up, or crash, or just be annoying to work with. That was true. And that won’t do you or anyone else any good. 

Try wisdom. 

This ancient near eastern tradition of wisdom literature is really old. The earliest Babylonian wisdom literature was mostly about magic and exorcism. It was like in a weird and scary world, how do you master the power to be less vulnerable and more in control?

But over time, wisdom literature in these ancient cultures shifted to be less superstitious and more practical. So that wisdom literature became like the self-help material of these cultures – it was about the art of being successful. About life mastery, growing a life that works.

Wisdom literature started to focus on the important, practical matters of life that our schools don’t always teach. Like how do you develop the character of a trustworthy, dependable person? How do you get some wealth but not have it ruin you? How do you not be the kind of person that doesn’t derail your own life, whether by accidents caused by your own foolishness, or by blowing up your friendships or your marriage, or by being unable to commit to things for the long haul, or just otherwise being a fool? How do we keep growing into a life that works?

Proverbs wants to help with this. 

But it’s not just self help. Because that’s not how growth works. We don’t do it alone. We need each other, and we need the wisdom that came before us. We need the wisdom of our teachers, the wisdom of our elders, the wisdom of our ancestors, and the wisdom of God, our creator. 

This is where wisdom starts, Proverbs says, by slowing down and listening. It starts with respect for what came before us. It starts with the kind of humility and awe that makes us want to listen. This is the kind of attitude Proverbs calls the fear of God. Admitting we’re small, and listening.

Where do you start, though? And what does wisdom sound like?

Let’s see where Proverbs starts as we keep reading.

Proverbs 1:8-19 (Common English Bible)

8 Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction;
    don’t neglect your mother’s teaching;

9         for they are a graceful wreath on your head,
        and beads for your neck.

10 My son, don’t let sinners entice you.
    Don’t go

11     when they say:
        “Come with us.
        Let’s set up a deadly ambush.
        Let’s secretly wait for the innocent just for fun.

12         Let’s swallow up the living like the grave —
        whole, like those who go down into the pit.

13         We’ll find all sorts of precious wealth;
        we’ll fill our houses with plunder.

14         Throw in your lot with us;
        we’ll share our money.”

15 My son, don’t go on the path with them;
    keep your feet from their way,

16     because their feet run to evil;
            they hurry to spill blood.

17 It’s useless to cast a net
    in the sight of a bird.

18 But these sinners set up a deadly ambush;
    they lie in wait for their own lives.

19 These are the ways of all who seek unjust gain;
    it costs them their lives.

So we read this in my community group the other Saturday and it seemed funny to some of us. Proverbs talks itself up as this well of wisdom, and then as it gets going, we listen in on a parent sitting down their kid for a huge life lesson, figuring we’re going to start with the most important stuff, what we all need to know.

And get this advice – don’t join in with the local street gang. Like don’t jump into the next band of armed robbers that appear. Which, fine, maybe good advice for your kid, but really, is this the thing we most need?

I mean I have made my share of mistakes, but I have never set up a deadly ambush just for fun. I promise. I mean when I’ve done it, it’s been for other reasons, I swear, not just for fun. And my three kids – they have their problems. But we never sat them down before school and were like today, please, do not rob your classmates and share your plunder with us. And please, today, do not spill blood.

On the surface, it seems basic. Is this all that Proverbs has got? 

But then as we talked, we were like, hold on, the schools we went to were full of bullying, groups of kids ganging up on someone they thought was weaker or different. And our kids’ schools are like that still, where people get bullied, just for fun.

And aren’t there other ways that when people just go with the flow around us, our schools or our workplaces remain toxic, or our communities remain unwelcoming and inequitable, like the dances some of our suburbs are playing right now to try to skirt the law and keep from building more housing. 

See this is another way that Proverbs isn’t self-help literature. Because like all the best wisdom literature, it isn’t just personal, it’s collective. We rise and fall together. If one of us is getting wiser, if God is doing something good in our lives, the sign isn’t so much that we think our life is getting better, it’s that the people around us think this. 

And the more I read this first bit of wisdom with this in mind, that it’s not just private, personal advice, the more I’m like I wish any of our societies would slow down and listen. 

  • Would the explorers that traveled from Europe to these lands I’m on today have wondered – what can I learn from who’s there already?
  • And what can I share?
  • And how can we do something together?

Instead of running their feet to evil and becoming extractors and enslavers and using my faith to justify it all.

  • Or would that when this country I’m a citizen of started emerging as the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world when my grandparents were young, what if we hadn’t decided to become the world’s biggest arms dealer, thinking might makes right, and rushing to spill blood?
  • What if we’d just focused on being a food dealer, or a love dealer, or a justice collaborator instead? 

I think this ancient wisdom still speaks. It can still still tell us the truth about ourselves. And I still think it’s urgent that we listen. 

Because our lives are at stake. I love the wisdom here that people who seek unjust gain, the ultimate harm is it costs your life – not just other people’s lives, but your own life. 

Get caught up in violence and extraction and just looking out for you and your own and not others, and you’ll lose yourself.

What will it cost us,

Jesus said,

if we gain the whole world but lose our souls?

Having pastored and counseled people reckoning with serious harm they’ve done, this is true. The harm we do comes back to eat us alive. 

And living in this country with decades of innovation and power and wealth and success behind us for some of us at least, I think man if America isn’t soul-sick and defensive these days? Something has cost us our life. 

So in walks wisdom to the room saying don’t neglect your mother and father’s teaching. Listen to your elders. Listen to your ancestors. Listen to God. 

And then we don’t get laws per se, instead we get a set of stories and a ton of earthy advice.

How do we personalize this, knowing what’s for us? And how do we really take it in? How do we not be like me, when someone tells us we’re moving too fast and mistake the warning for a compliment? 

Where do we start? 

I think the end of this passage gives us something to take away today. 

Proverbs 1:20-23 (Common English Bible)

20 Wisdom shouts in the street;
    in the public square she raises her voice.

21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.
    At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say:

22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté,
    mockers hold their mocking dear,
    and fools hate knowledge?

23 You should respond when I correct you.
    Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you.
    I’ll reveal my words to you.

Proverbs insists that not only does wisdom speak, she is shouting in the street, calling out above the noisy crowds. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman. Later the gospel of John says that Jesus was Lady Wisdom come to life. It says that eternal Logos – the wise Word of God – became flesh and dwelt among us. And so in the Christian tradition, Wisdom is always personal. It’s never a set of facts we learn. And it’s kind of gender-bending. Wisdom is the wisest of women who beckons us to sit at her feet. And wisdom is Jesus Christ, son of the living God, who invites us to follow him. And wisdom is the androgynous, beyond gender, Holy Spirit of God who is the truth-telling voice both without and within. 

And so we may wonder: If wisdom is a woman shouting in the street, and if wisdom is the truth of Jesus the word of God, and if wisdom is the Spirit of God seeking to speak life-giving truth to us still, what is wisdom saying to us? What is wisdom saying to you? 

One way to start to answer this question is to ask –

what has life been trying to teach us recently, whether or not we’ve been listening. 

What truth is crying out to you, to make your life work better, for you and for others?

For me, it’s not so much the haste makes waste thing. I don’t derail my life this way so much anymore. Maybe sometimes, but not as much.

But last year, when I was gifted some time off by this community, in the form of a sabbatical, there was a course-correcting wisdom that came my way. The word I learned is called Enclosure.

I stayed in a monastery a couple times during my sabbatical, and there an enclosure is the place where the public can’t go. It’s the private space, sacred to the monks or nuns that live there permanently. Where they preserve the way of life to which they are called.

And for me, enclosure has become this metaphor for the sacred commitments in my life that I am called to, that make my life work. And over the past several months, I’m thinking more and more about the people and habits and commitments that form the core of my life, and that I don’t let anyone or anything interrupt. 

As a person who has tended to want to YES to everything that interests me in life, I’m learning that the small set of people and things I say yes to needs more protecting, and that has meant working on saying NO a little more often too. And that’s taking a lot of practice for me, but man if it isn’t important, and protecting me from regret down the road, I believe. 

That’s me, though. You may be in the opposite place today – the kind of person who’s been saying NO too often and needs to learn more YESes. I don’t know. So my encouragement today isn’t to do any particular thing in your life, but to ask:

What has life been trying to teach me? 

Where is Wisdom crying out to you with her fierce and gentle voice 

What’s calling to you? 

We’ll ask this repeatedly in the weeks to come, but perhaps we can close by taking a quick minute on this…

  • How is the Spirit of God trying to lead you toward a more healthy, abundant life?
  • How is Lady Wisdom crying out to you, with her voice of encouragement or correction?
  • If you could sit at a table today with your ancestors assembled, or perhaps even with the living God, what observations might they make about your life? What might they have to say?

New Life When You Are Walking Away

Hello, and happy Easter, friends!

I want to start with a bit of a good news/bad news moment, maybe depending on how old you are.

I read a while back that at least according to one large social science study, we know what on average is the least happy age in people’s lives.

Anyone have a guess when that is? Least happy age, on average.

Apparently, it’s 47.2 years old. 

Now obviously this is just an average, but for me…

I turned 47 in 2020 – great year, right? 

2020 was gonna be a big year, like the best year. 

I had done some serious inner life work in my early 40s, and I was feeling kind of happy and free those days. And our church had done some hard change work during those same years. That had been really stressful. But by early 2020, things at church here too were also kind of awesome. Probably the happiest, healthiest season I’d seen in our church as a pastor. And I had my first sabbatical ever coming up in the summer. And our family had been saving up for years for our first ever trip to China, where our Chinese-American kids had never been. 

Our oldest kid was graduating from high school that year, and that big trip together just afterwards – it all was going to be epic.

Until it wasn’t. Hello, Covid. And goodbye, everything else. Our schools shut down. Church shut down. Everything was shutting down. We all thought we’d chill out for a couple of weeks and let this weird virus blow over, but then it didn’t. 

And the season of canceling began.

We canceled the trip to China, and then we canceled the smaller trip we’d booked instead. 

School was canceled, kids’ prom, graduations, canceled. My sabbatical, canceled. Everything, canceled. And we all worried – just how bad would this get? Who would we lose? Just how much would this hurt? 

Some of you all were out there being heroic as essential workers in that season. Me, I was figuring out how to properly disinfect our groceries every couple of weeks, and how to be a professional gatherer of community when people weren’t allowed to get together. 

We were trying best we could as a church to respond to isolation and fear and grief and then to a movement for racial justice. It was an important time, and in some ways, we did well by each other and by what was happening in this world.

But it was hard and tiring, and then right after we sent our oldest kid off to college. While I was tired and drained, I ended up in a weird and stupid extended family conflict that was the last straw for me. 

I was done and I found myself dreaming of walking away from it all. 

Like, maybe I could peace out on the people that had done me wrong and just be done with them. Maybe I could walk away from the sources of conflict in my life.

And I’ll admit to you all that for the first time ever in that fall of 2020, I was wondering what it would be like to walk away from being a pastor too. I found myself daydreaming about exit ramps and ways I could live a smaller, simpler life where I could nurse my disappointments in peace or carve out a little world with my family where nobody and nothing could hurt us any more.  

So yeah, 47.2 years old landed right on time for me, most definitely one of the least happy moments of my life. 

Three, four years later, though, thinking about where I find myself now in a new decade, it’s striking just how often help found me. It’s striking just how often new perspective and new growth found me. It’s striking where love would not let me go, where new life found me. 

Again and again in these years, it’s seemed like I’ve met the risen Jesus, coming my way and bringing me back to peace.

So friends, this Easter, I want to talk about the risen Jesus and new life when you’ve given up and you’re walking away. 

Each of the four gospels in the Bible tells the resurrection story differently. Here’s a story that the book of Luke tells. 

Luke 24:13-24 (Common English Bible)

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.

14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened.

15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey.

16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.

20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.

21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago.

22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning

23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.

24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

We’ll pick up more of the story in a minute. 

I think Cleopas and his friend are 47.2 years old. Maybe. They are also colonized oppressed people who have lost what they thought was their way forward. 

They’re disappointed, grieving. 

We had hoped, they say.

We had hoped. 

They thought the promises of God for their liberation, their ancestors’ dreams, were coming true.

And now they are walking away.

They are walking away from Jerusalem.

They’re walking away from God, given that the truth they thought they knew about God has let them down.

And they’re walking away from the life they thought they’d have – victorious, fulfilled, redeemed, as they put it. 

Then Jesus shows up like that friend of yours who never pays attention to the news.

He’s like –

you all seem bummed out. What’s wrong?

What’s wrong?!? Who are you to ask that kind of question? “What’s not wrong?”

they say. 

Friends, what are you walking away from today? 

And where do you feel like you’re living in a time of cataclysm that if people would wake up and pay attention, they’d see it like you do?

Beyond that terrible moment at 47.2 years old, I had spent parts of my 40s walking away from a lot of things. Walking away from the easy lives or the happiness I thought my kids would have. Walking away from religious systems and communities that I’d once called home. Walking away from some bad ideas and some old stories about myself that weren’t true and didn’t set me free but were still hard to leave behind.

In my life as a pastor among you, I hear so many stories of disappointment and walking away. Stories of people walking away from a dream, disappointed with where they haven’t yet arrived at this time of life. I hear people walking away from ways of being in their marriage, or ways of being in their bodies, or ways of being in their faith that weren’t walking out? And sometimes you’re glad to be making a change, but dang, if it isn’t hard?

So much walking away.

And just about everyone I talk to feels like we are living in times of cataclysm – big and scary threats and changes that aren’t going anywhere. A lot of us name the cataclysm differently. We don’t all rank order the worst, most apocalyptic things going on in the world the same way. But most of us have got a list, don’t we?

I was spending time with some engaged and newly married couples recently talking about whether or not they’d have kids and if they did, what that would be like. And someone brought up, as someone always did these days, that maybe it’s a bad time in history to have kids. Maybe the future is too bleak. 

And not everyone was leaning this way, but no one challenged the premise. 

This is part of why I love this resurrection story, that it seems like times of cataclysm – when all is wrong with the world – and times of disappointment – when we’re walking away from our dreams, disappointed – are perfect times for the risen God to appear to us again. 

Let’s pick up the rest of the story. 

Luke 24:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about.

26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.

29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

Let’s look at how Jesus appears, how resurrection appears to these two friends who are walking away. 

Jesus is a little spicy with them because loving as Jesus is, he doesn’t want to nourish our dysfunction or our bad ideas. Jesus is always kind, but he is not always nice. There’s a lot in the world and if we’re honest plenty in us too that needs interrupting, and nice doesn’t interrupt very well. So Jesus takes the time to interrupt their story. 

And in this case, he’s like,

well, with what you know, walking away makes sense. But there’s a lot you don’t know.

And he goes on to tell them.

You didn’t know that suffering always had to be part of the story.

You didn’t know how long good things can take, how un-straight the road to them always is.

You didn’t know that new life usually takes some death to clear the way. 

You didn’t know.

And in the coming to terms with all they didn’t know, these two friends find room for Jesus to tell them the truth.

That’s one of the benefits of walking away. Of disillusionment, disenchantment. 

Sometimes it makes room for the truth. Sometimes it lays the ground for resurrection. 

One of the weird things about Easter is that Jesus rose in secret. No one saw it. Too dang early. (Jesus!) Whatever happened physically, scientifically, whatever the mechanics were, whatever the nature of Jesus’ risen body, no one was there for it. 

Our faith just tells us: God raised Jesus from the dead. 

But then the fun starts. The resurrected Christ appears to people as they’re hiding out or walking away. Two disappointed friends are walking away in midlife, and Jesus appears as a companion who wonders what they’re thinking. Jesus’  grieving fishermen friends are out on the lake at dawn unable to catch anything, and Jesus appears frying up fish on the beach. Two people welcome a stranger to a simple, small meal in their home, and Jesus is recognized as he breaks bread, blesses it, and offers it to them. Two friends tell a story of their disappointment, how all is lost, and Jesus appears as he offers them a better perspective and they find their hearts on fire.

That last one happened to me too. 

During that awful fall and the year beyond, a few friends walked with me and listened, good help and provision and counsel came my way. And by 2022, getting toward the end of my 40s, some things were shifting in my life, but I was still kind of stuck internally. And I noticed this as I was talking with a friend of mine.

I met up with that friend around the anniversary of that last straw conflict in 2020, which was also around the anniversary of another big trauma in my life, and I asked my friend if we could talk about it that day. And as we did, I shared with him how everyone was doing, myself included. And I was like:

things are better, but there’s so far to go, and that’s so disappointing. 

And my friend listened to me, and he let me know he understood how big this is to me, how heavy the ache is. 

But he also asked me:

can I share what I hear as you tell these stories? 

And I told him:

please do.

And he said:

it’s your life, your truth. I don’t want to tell you what to think, but what I hear are stories of resurrection. 

And he told a different story of my life than what I was seeing – same facts, but different angle. How despite suffering, this person was alive and not dead, and this relationship may be cut off but wow, how this other one was better than ever, how so many things were so much better than I could have imagined not too long ago.

And he said:

I know you hope for more, I know you hope for more but remember that when Jesus rose, he rose with scars. And you have your scars too. I see them. But a scarred resurrection life is still life, isn’t it? It’s still life. It’s a miracle. You live within a miracle.

And as he shared the truth he saw, I was tearing up because my heart was on fire with the truth of all this.

So many signs of life. The buds and shoots of resurrection blossoming everywhere. 

Because Jesus rising from the dead is not only an event in history. It’s not only the foundation of a faith in which we stand here. The resurrection of Christ is also an invitation to a new way of being in the world, where we can have reasonable faith and hope that a way will be made where there is no way. That disappointments and loss are gardens where extraordinary new things can be cultivated. That crappy year after crappy year in midlife can be an invitation to the work of renaissance. That every dying seed tucked into the ground is just waiting to burst back out with life. 

Recently, I’ve found myself with a new spiritual habit. I call it looking for signs of resurrection. Where my instincts tell me there’s no way forward, I wonder what way is going to appear. When something in me or someone I love seems lost or stuck, I’m asking God –

where can I be seeding and watering the next resurrection? 

I’m looking for stories of resurrection. Because resurrection is looking for us. 

Let’s finish our story.

Luke 24:33-36 (Common English Bible)

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!”

35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Ha, here it is again. Tell one story of resurrection, and another may be right on its tail. Jesus keeps appearing, in weird and funny ways.

My wife Grace and I heard an interview once with a strange, old fundamentalist lady who had this funny phrase she’d say. She’d say:

Jesus is a tricksy one. 

It’s a silly, weird phrase, and I have no idea what she meant, but it’s stuck with me, and now I think it’s true. Nothing Jesus says or does in the gospel’s resurrection stories is predictable. And I think the stories of new life that the Spirit of the Risen Christ is working on today aren’t predictable either. 

We call God our creator, and if the Spirit of the Risen Christ is anything, it is endlessly creative. That Jesus is a tricksy one. 

When we hit our bad days and our bad years and our walls of awful stuckness and discouragement, we don’t usually feel like new life is on the horizon. 

So even if we’re walking away, we are given tangible symbols, sacraments by which to remember Christ, and to stir faith and hope in his risen life among us.

One of these we call communion, a tiny little meal we take in worship every week, where we remember Jesus, broken out for the life of this world that we could be renewed and that we could become the body of Christ ourselves, blessed, and given for the healing of the world. 

Another of these we call baptism. We are about to have the joy of baptizing six people with water. And so a moment on what this means. What this means for these six, what it means for you if you’ve been baptized before, or if you haven’t and you want to – just let us know! – what it would mean. 

In baptism, we are welcomed into a faith of resurrection.

In baptism, the cleansing water of forgiveness and healing tells us that we are never the sum of our worst days. 

In baptism, the water which represents the Spirit of God tells us that God will be with us always, that the faithful, loving accompaniment of our God is everlasting.

And the water we go under tells us too that if we die with Christ, we will live with him. That new life after death is the pattern of our present and the destiny of our future.

We’re not promised an easy road in this life. The faith of the risen Christ doesn’t even protect us or our world for the cataclysms that come, mostly the ones our species brings upon ourselves. 

There will keep coming times we want to walk away from.

But the faith of the risen Christ assures us these times are not the end of the story but the beginning of knowing again that we live within a miracle, that our life is again a miracle of goodness, another impossibly great story we wouldn’t have seen coming. 

Pray with me.

Spirit of the Risen and kind of tricksy Christ, fall afresh on us. 

In the taking of communion, in the bearing witness to baptism, in the kind  presence of a friend, in the sharing of a simple meal, in the generosity of every hospitality, in the truth that comes to us and sets our hearts on fire, remind us that we live within a miracle, that we are a miracle, and that with the help of God, the pattern of our present and our future can always be new life. Amen.

On Fire For God

Each year, in the weeks before Easter, our church embarks on a season of spiritual formation. We take time and attention to look reflectively at our lives, to welcome God’s guidance and presence. This season in the year where winter meets spring is called Lent. Lent comes from an Old English word meaning “spring.” It’s used to refer to the six-week period before Easter Sunday. For centuries, Jesus followers have marked this period of anticipation for Easter through prayer,  fasting and giving. 

A few years ago we decided by whim and by Spirit – I believe… that we should plan for a 4-year series of  Lenten seasons in advance. And the series should be on the elements – Water, Earth, Wind and Fire. The last two year’s Lenten themes were Water and Earth. This year’s theme is Fire. It feels right, it feels timely. 

Fire, whether regarded as a controlled source of warmth or an incinerating force, offers us intensity. And in my own spirit I’m grasping for an intensity that can meet the fervor of the world around us. Fire that’s unabashedly mesmerizing, beautiful, and powerful. A metaphor that you can really lean into that stands up —  that doesn’t look away from the realities of the world – but looks at it squarely, blazing and crackling as it does. 

This Lent we’ll turn to the spiritual significance of fire through many lenses.  Each Sunday to come we will explore a different theme of fire. We’ll talk about what to do and where to find hope when it seems the world is on fire. We’ll think about the passion and light and power of God.  We’ll talk about the cleansing and purifying fire of the Spirit, and discuss less-toxic, kinder ways to think about concepts like judgment and hell. *Not only will our Sunday services cover this — but so does our Lent Guide which covers all that good stuff and more!!*

We hope through this journey of Lent we’ll remember that on this Earth – we too are the fires that take light, that roll through our landscapes – schools, workplaces, sidewalks –  signaling  how to be in partnership and action with a God that is “larger, free-er, and more loving” than we could ever imagine (as James Baldwin emboldens us to do).

This morning, I invite you to wonder what a season like this could kindle in you? I invite you to wonder if the warming presence of God could flame and breathe new urgency into your love of life. THIS LIFE. All of this life, its beauty and its brokenness.


God of fire — thank you for your presence this morning that offers us warmth, clarity, rest, and light. In ways that we need more of all those things – greet us this morning with your Spirit that never holds back – but comes full force in abundance with what our heart needs. Fold into us the embers of your light that never are extinguished —  the divine sparks that keep us going, keeps us hoping — and you, the Divine spark that keeps us. Keeps us close.

In the name of the Fire,

The Flame

And the Light,
(John O’Donohue)


Story: “On Fire for God”

Now there’s nothing I love more than being warm. . . maybe other than being ‘hot.’  I talk about the weather all the time,  the forecast, the temperature — it’s not just small talk to me, it’s part of the way I experience the world and God. I grew up in Maine, with a wood stove in our kitchen — our only source of heat and there wasn’t a day that I wasn’t as close to that stove as possible. I take scalding hot showers, do the dishes in blistering hot water, I have the seat heaters on in any car all year ‘round in the middle of summer … I love to be warm. 

So when I first heard the spiritual question,

Is your heart on fire for God?” 

when I was eight or nine years old from one of my summer camp counselors.

I was stunned. “Wait – that’s an option?”

My heart could be a source of heat and warmth?  Well I’m not sure it is — but I am game to find out!

I didn’t grow up with Lent as part of my tradition or yearly rhythm.

But I did grow up with going to an annual Christian summer camp! It was a small camp on a small lake, about 15 minutes from where I grew up in Maine. 

And this camp was a highlight of my year. I’d pack a good three weeks in advance, I truly looked forward to it. 

Each year, toward the end of the week of camp we’d build a fire, a big bonfire  – as a culmination – and there’d be some sort of spiritual talk (during which I’d usually be strategizing how much money I had left in my snack bar kitty and whether it was enough to get both Swedish fish & sweet tarts). I’d know the end of the talk was finally coming when the cadence and volume of the leader would get a bit amped.. And then the invitation would come,

“If your heart is on fire for God – come on up!”

And all of us would gather up around the bonfire.. 

Faces aglow. 

Hearts on fire – as best as we knew.

I wonder what memories or thoughts come to the surface as you hear the question, “Is your heart on fire for God?” 

Part of the beauty of the Lent Guide this year is that in addition to selections of scripture and some provoking commentary written by Steve… is that it is peppered with a bunch of ‘wondering questions.’ Taking the nod from our kids church philosophy of Godly Play that to wonder kindles curiosity, reflection, and engages the Spirit of God in ways that unveil God’s great love for us. 

And this is the richness of Lent. 

Perhaps for many of you Lent is a season of self-denial, of fasting, of giving something up. I know that these components are so meaningful to many of you. We’ll make room for that but also lean into wondering questions, reflection, prayer… to illuminate just how this season is also about God’s fiery love for us.  

But Lent doesn’t always lead with the “God’s great fiery love for you” vibe. I mean it starts with the remnants of fire… the absence of fire – ash.  Ash Wednesday – a reminder of our human limits, our mortality, that we’ll all die.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Lent is an acknowledgement that life can be gritty.  And it doesn’t try to soften that – it actually invites you into that reality — with nothing to buffer. That’s what I appreciate so much about Lent.  There is no cheery Santa, or candy canes to balance the darkness and somberness.  It’s an invitation to a landscape of ash. Of nothingness — to see what can begin again. Of wilderness and God’s voice asking,

I wonder from the ashes what we can find/create with one another? I wonder what embers I can fan for you?

I wonder how you’ll find and hold on to God’s love in your fears, trauma, doubts – when it feels like there’s nothing in your hands to grab on to – it’s all just silt.   

Lent is a deep, deep season. 

It is about God’s love for us — us that God created from dust. 

It’s about God’s love in us – – given life by breath.

It’s about God’s love moving through us —  by the fire of the Spirit of God.

Reminding us that these elements — dust, breath, fire — that seem like nothing, prove to be everything.

And Lent invites us to consider what living a life with this love at center, “with a heart on fire for God” looks like.  

I think this passage in Romans captures some of its essence: 

ROMANS 12:9-12

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 

2- Story: “On Fire for God”

When I heard the invitation. “If your heart is on fire for God, come on up!” 

I went up.

I went up  in good faith. But I think I was mostly pretending. 

I so wanted my heart to be on fire for God. 

But I didn’t know what it really meant – and I didn’t know what it really felt like.

I wanted what seemed like this unwavering blaze of faith and courage — and just steam-rolling through life with confidence. My friends at camp weren’t hesitating  – they were enthusiastic – running to that fire.

I wanted that “high” of friendship and what seemed like a fun and joyful GOD – to sustain me once I left camp… But when I got home my life felt the same as I had left it – annoying four brothers, boring, and cold. 

It felt bewildering to me – – how to fan that flame out in the wilderness of life.

Each year after camp ended, we would be invited to give our testimony at a Sunday service —  a reflection of our time and I never shared because I felt like I’d failed somehow – that I was just “smoldering” – not “on fire!”

Part of that sense of “smoldering” was:

  • My childhood imagination pretty quickly was challenged once I learned that I didn’t in fact carry around with me a personal inner furnace that kept me warm at all times
  • some of it was just naturally developmentally appropriate, and 
  • some of it was the foundational theology that underpinned my experience.  All the ways Christians have historically and still do misuse the metaphor of fire to say all kinds of wild things about the character of God, eternal judgment and hell that try to scare and control us — this was true of my upbringing and also influenced a sense of “being on fire” or “not” as a result of good or bad choices. We’ll press into this reality a bit in the middle of the Lent Guide – – it’s a good one, “The Fires of Judgement!”

Anyway – I did think that 

-“If” I was to be a heart-on-fire girl I surely would have  figured it out by now, after multiple summers.

– I did think “if” my heart was on fire for God, I certainly would be more like Peggy Jones in the couple pews over from me – – opening her Bible and taking notes.. 

– I did think that “If” my heart was on fire for God, I certainly should give up thinking about candy during a sermon.

There were definitely some conditionals that were setting up in my thinking.

And there are likely easy I can tell this story – or you can hear this story as a point in time – an adolescent summer camp story. But I think there are elements that get woven all through our not just spiritual life – but all of life… and the Lenten journey mirrors how this ‘same dynamic’ goes down with Jesus in the wilderness as well. 


Lent is commonly described as a commemoration of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, when he was tempted by evil that prowled around him. And interestingly the voices that came to tempt Jesus start with this conditional  word “if” — — – –  which is perhaps the greatest evil..

The voices challenge him: 

“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

“If you are the Son of God,  throw yourself down.”

“If you will bow down and worship me” – I will give you all this…

“If” it’s such a destabilizing word.

“If your heart is on fire for God… then….”

But Jesus rejects all of this the very premise of it — he says,

“No thanks, I live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, don’t test the Lord your God, worship the Lord your God.”

He gives IN –  He doesn’t give in to the conditions, or the temptations.

He gives in –  ALL IN – to the love of God.

This is the invitation of Lent – to give “in” – not necessarily “give up” something.

It’s not “if”  you are “doing Lent” then you are “giving up” x, y, or z.”

The irony of Lent as Richard Rohr says, is that it’s not about “trying hard” it’s not a “trying” at all – it’s a foundational “giving in.” 

Now, Lent is to in solidarity accompany the journey of Jesus in the wilderness….. and it is to reflect on our lives. And examine where our faith has picked up some grime – some sediment.. where we’ve attached to false premises … .or collected extra things on the back of our own ambitions.

And it is time to re-set, to take note, to orient again to the love of God. And our reflection is not in vain, it is to open up our stories to the stories of our spiritual ancestors… The stories where their hearts were ablaze with the goodness and trust and faith of God, even in their very own wildernesses, and where we can sit in the glow of their joy, their strength — letting it fan our own heart’s embers. 

In Psalm 126 we read these words of our ancestors:

When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,

    it was like we had been dreaming.

 Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;

    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.

It was even said, at that time, among the nations,

    “The Lord has done great things for them!”

Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,

    and we are overjoyed.

Lord, change our circumstances for the better,

    like dry streams in the desert waste!

Let those who plant with tears

    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.

Let those who go out,

    crying and carrying their seed,

    come home with joyful shouts,

    carrying bales of grain!

This Psalm is one in a special group of psalms, the Songs of Ascent  comprising Psalms 120—134. They are also called Pilgrim Songs.

This is a scripture where our ancestors declare,

“We have faced and we DO face exile and loss of fortune. But we live in hope – hope of the return of DREAMS”

I wonder if we could dream again? 

Hope to have our mouths filled with laughter, and hope to have the nations declaring that God is good. God has done great things for us. As our ancestors sang in memory and nostalgia, WE catch their flame and continue to pray, even as they did,

‘Restore our dreams, O God and cling to the promise that while, in fact, we do live in exile and wilderness sowing in tears and sorrow, we can move forward with our ‘hearts on fire’ in belief of a good and life-giving God — a “God that has done great things for them – and a God who does great things for us.”’

Here’s the thing — Lent has often been given a quick descriptor as a season of “giving something up.” And it’s true we might just find ourselves giving up a lot of things as we return and give in to the love of God.  

We may find where we have attached ourselves to things that have promised us relief, escape, even momentary joy — and we may find that those are tangible things in our lives that do – as we end up giving in to the love of God –  end up burning off like dross.  

Some of the ways that that feels most doable is through prayer. We are just ending a whole series on prayer.. And it’s great timing because Lent is also a season of prayer. Prayer that helps identify all of that excess stuff we might be carrying around… it helps clear the hazardous brush that’s built up around us – that is in jeopardy of engulfing us in flames of despair.

This Psalm was a prayer often sung by Jews traveling to Jerusalem for one of the three main annual Jewish festivals (to remember the wilderness and God’s provision within it,  and God’s continual promise of being with them in the future).  They would sing and pray these prayers on the “ascent” – as they traveled up the hill to the city. Recalling a history of standing their ground when they were in trouble and devoting themselves to prayer. A present day invitation to us too. 

Lent is a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage of the heart – a pilgrimage of descent and ascent. One, that if we can make the journey illuminates the world around us – in such a way that we can see the landscape riddled with fracture, and war and division — but also see in the cracks the blazing beauty of God’s love roaring through.

Geologists tell us that at the heart of the earth, there is no neutral or cold center, but rather a great heat.

Thousands of kilometers below the earth’s crust there is a heart of fire, molten magma. — John O’ Donohue

Maybe that’s what Lent helps us see – that molten magma rippling under the surface of everything. Piercing love – for us, and for the world around us. A world that is worthy and so greatly in need of such love. This is the work of Lent —  … where we pray together for strength for the dreams of this world, our households, our kids, our nation – our year ahead.  

Throughout this Lenten Guide there is a beautiful simple prayer practice that you are invited to try. You can try it alone – your household, your family – no matter the age… with a community group … The practice includes a candle — actual fire!, and integrates some wondering questions for you to form your own prayers…..whatever they might be  — Padraig O’Tuama the poet and theologian, says,

“Prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm”

and maybe you’ll find that it will keep your hearts aflame as well. 

We have lots to pray for, friends. 

Oppression will continue to course through the veins of society. Dominant and evil forces will push and pull on our collective life. But Lent gives us an intentional time to sharpen our clarity:  

To “Hate evil, and hold on to what is good.” 


Set my heart on fire!

Help me find again that my story and the story of Jesus are bound together in hope, faith, love and community.

2024 is already on fire. It absolutely has all the components of being combustible.

  • Wars across the globe. 
  • An election that we are already feeling the heat of.
  • The actual temperature of the Earth rising. 

Richard Rohr says that

“Lent is just magnified and intensified life.”

All of it, the tears, the laughter, the forces of empire, the forces of love –  the beauty, the singing, the prayer – some of it burning off, some of it flaming the flame. And us drawing closer to God and closer to others as we sift through it all – unto to a more just, more free world for all of us.   

3 – Story: “On Fire for God”

I could imagine an alternative to the summer camp invitation, “if your heart is on fire for God – please come up..” could have been. “You all are fire!” “You all such awesome, fun, curious kids!”  Come on up here – let’s light something on fire — (like sparklers).”

I wonder if that would have registered as a little less conditional and a little more of the

“Love each other like the members of your family – be the best at showing honor to each other!”

I was at the GBH event a little over a week ago – that Steve mentioned last Sunday. And I was taken aback by the conversation between two colleagues who were introducing this new podcast called, “What is Owed?” (coming out Feb. 15th) – a podcast seeking to understand what reparations might look like in Boston. Saraya (who’s the host), and her colleague Jerome both were on the panel. And the interviewer asked Jerome,

“what did you enjoy most about producing this podcast?”

And Jerome turned to Saraya and said,

“It’s been working with you.”

And then he proceeded to go on –

“the thoughtfulness, humor, the quick-wittedness that you brought to the work made me be able to say after every interview — that was the best interview. No, that  was the best interview.. Actually this one, this last one — was the best interview…. And mean it!”

And there sat Jerome just flaming the fire of goodness in Saraya.

He flamed this inner-part of her – “You are fire!” – and what you touch – what you bring voice to, what you unveil – the work you do, is also fire. 

Maybe that’s what this Lent can feel like to you too. That God could just be fanning the indwelling of the Spirit of God that is already within you. Helping you peel back some of the layers that have crowded it – to make room for your heart to really fire… So you can hear God say day after day .. 

“wow, I love you the most today. And then the next day say, “actually today, today — I love you the most …”  

I do think we need our hearts to be made incandescent by the Spirit’s fire. 
I do think that’s what is going to help us all LOVE LIVING OUR LIFE. 

And I do think that this Lent can aid you, guide you in experiencing some of the warm love of God –  jump in a community group, do it with a friend – definitely download the Lent Guide! 

Let me pray for us,

God could you help us love this life, one another, and you – without pretending?

Could you help us to name and hate what is evil and hold on to what is good. 

Could you help us to love each other like the members of your family and show honor to each other?

Could you help us to be enthusiastic – to be ON FIRE IN THE SPIRIT with you God?

May we be happy in your hope, stand our ground when we’re in trouble and devote ourselves to prayer.  

In the name of the Fire,
The Flame,
And the Light.   
(John O’Donohue)

– Amen

The Value of a Daily Prayer Practice

We’re going to talk about prayer today and do some praying together for those of us who would like, but first we have some new year celebrating to do!

Last year we celebrated our church’s 25th anniversary in many ways.

Two years ago, I had my real conversation about this anniversary. It was with Ann Bakun, one of our Board members, who has a gift for celebrating people and things.

We spoke on the phone about what this anniversary year should feel like, and we both thought – let’s spend a little bit of energy celebrating where we come from and a little bit on where we are going, but a lot on who and where we are today. So many of us love and are grateful for this community – we thought how do we celebrate that?

And we thought – there should be a party and cake at some point. And one Sunday in May we had a party. We had a worship service where the mayor of Cambridge at the time, Sumbul Sidiqui, now a city councilor, spoke and thanked us on behalf of the city. Our state rep, Steve Owens, brought a proclamation from the Massachusetts State House, celebrating this community. And we had some food, I’m pretty sure a cake, afterwards. It was great. 

During that conversation with Ann, or shortly thereafter, we were thinking we should tell some stories too. So we had a 25 Stories for 25 Years Project, where 25 people or couples shared a story about good things in their lives through their time at Reservoir. Those stories are all up on our YouTube page; I think those are pretty great too!

I realized our church was turning 25, the same year I was turning 50, and celebrating 10 years with you as senior pastor, so I took a sabbatical for the summer. Going away for a little while may sound like a strange way to celebrate, but for me and my family that was great too. And then when I got back, I renewed my ordination vows last fall, which was really sacred and important to me. To commit to God to continue to serve as the pastor and person God has called me to be, and to commit to you all that I’ll keep doing that here as long as you’ll have me as well. 

One thing I remember from that first conversation with Ann, though, was that I was like: I don’t want to raise money. You know, nonprofits and churches and stuff use big anniversaries for fundraisers a lot of the time. And I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for that or didn’t see the vision or need. Or probably I just didn’t want to do the work. Whatever. But I remember saying: no fund-raiser.

Well, a few months later, our executive pastor Trecia and I were realizing – dang, a number of things are breaking around here. Like a whole bunch of pipes for instance. And we need to do something about that. And as we started pricing out some of the infrastructure work around the church and a couple of facilities projects that were just overdue for us, we brought that to our Board. And we just didn’t have enough money in reserves for it all. 

So I was like, well, I guess we’re gonna have a fundraiser after all. It was going be like $250,000, which seemed like a heck of a lot of money to me.

But then two things happened to make it much bigger. 

The second one, I’ll tell you about in a minute.

But the first was that two different Board members, each in their own way, were like – that’s too small, Steve. You’re uninspiring. Like, we can go bigger than that. One was like, hey, remember your goal of paying off all our debts and doing some new things with those funds, why aren’t we going for that?

And another one had pledged a certain amount of funds toward the whole fix up the church campaign, but when they heard we could go bigger, they were like, well, this actually inspires us. We’ll triple what we talked about giving before.

So we went in big. Just over a year ago, we launched this 25th anniversary capital campaign to raise $1.4 million dollars in giving last year and this year. And I started asking people, and then brought it to you all – let’s raise a ton of money, pay our debts, fix some stuff up, and reimagine the big things we can do together with this freed up funding.

And then, friends, all year, I went back and forth, almost every week, from like, oh my goodness, this church is so generous and committed, we’re going to do this thing. It’s going to be so great! To maybe a week later, thinking, why are we even trying to do this? It’s too much money. We’ll never make it. 

And then we got over half way there before I took the summer off, which felt great at the time, but then I got back to work at the end of the summer, and it was like, really, we have to ramp up this campaign again? What are we doing? It’s too much money. We’ll never get there.

Well, friends, I am pleased to tell you in this first week of the new year, that WE DID IT! Yeah, we did it! 

By December 31, our pledges and giving were at $1.46 million dollars. We beat our goal by more than $60,000.


Now there’s a lot more I could say about this campaign – it’s not technically over. Only about ⅔ of those funds are in the bank already. So we’re obviously hoping that all of you who made pledges for giving this year will fulfill those. And there’s tons to talk about in terms of what’s next – how we’ll be paying down our debt, what projects we’ll do, how we’ll be getting some new ministry goals off the ground. 

But all that is for another day. We’ll check in on that stuff a little at our members meeting on February 11th. And there will be quarterly updates for you all on what’s up and how to get involved. The first of those will probably be next month too. 

For today, two things. 

  1. Celebrate. You all are a generous, abundant community, and we dug deep together to really change this church’s financial future. And free us up to do some really cool things for our community. I’m so proud of us all. I hope you are too!
  2. But the other thing I want to mention today is that this campaign wouldn’t have happened without daily prayer practices.

I mean quite a number of you made choices about giving that you came to in your prayers for this church and your prayers about your own finances, and what to do with those. At our best, Reservoir, we are a praying church – people who ask God to be good to the people and causes we love, and people who ask God to lead us toward being people of love and faith and generosity and are open to God’s creative ideas for us in that.

But even for me. I mentioned that were two things that changed my mind about that campaign.

One is that challenge or dare from our Board – when they told me I was uninspiring to them, too cautious, too small.

But the other is what I did with it next. I didn’t feel great about how that landed for me, and one of the things I do with things that don’t sit well with me is I talk about them in prayer. 

And so I remember asking God,

  • am I lacking in boldness or courage around the church?
  • Am I thinking too small?

And in kind of a gentle way, the sense I had in me was: absolutely, yes, Steve. I felt called back to ask:

  • what do I really want for this church?
  • And what does this church want for ourselves? 

And in that prayer time, my hope, my faith, my vision and courage started to grow.

Friends, I don’t spend a ton of time in preaching talking about what happens when I pray because 1) it’s private. And 2) I don’t want anyone thinking that because I’m a pastor, I have a special connection with God you don’t have or that God is going to speak to you through me.

But I do know that it’s harder to have a sense that God is with us, and it’s harder to feel like God communicates with us or helps us day to day without some kind of daily prayer practice. 

So we’re going to talk a little bit about how to have a daily prayer practice if you want one. 

I’ve been reading a part of the gospel of John from the Bible this past week. Let me share just a few highlight verses with us. 

John 15:5 (Common English Bible)

5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.

John 14:26-27 (Common English Bible)

26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 

John 17:24 (Common English Bible)

24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.


We just finished up the Christmas season. At Christmas time, we remember Jesus as Emmanuel, a name that means God with us. That’s at the center of faith in the Way of Jesus, that the teaching and life of Jesus shows God to us 

But then the gospel of John tells us about this long, late night chat Jesus had with his disciples in a stone room in Jerusalem, the night before his death. 

It was an intense, late night conversation, as you’d expect.

These verses I read capture some of Jesus’ most radical, important hopes. Jesus says,

soon I’m not going to be around anymore. But the God-with-us experience can continue, uninterrupted, long past my years on earth. 

He says

stick with me, remain, abide, and we’re going to stay connected. Like a branch to a tree. Tight. 

He says

that in that connection, you will be a resource to bear valuable fruit. You will grow, be sweet and useful. You can participate with God in things of everlasting value.

Jesus says,

you can know God has a companion, a companion that will grow peace in you.

I used to think it was an insult if people thought Jesus was my imaginary friend. Now, I’m like, you know, yes, he is. And it’s real. It’s true. The God we can’t see is my friend, and God gives me peace. 

Jesus says

that connection, that peace can be so deep, it’s like you are with God.

We can be where Jesus is. That’s very mystical, but it speaks to a connection of depth and wonder.

And Jesus says that

God can keep teaching you the truth you need. God will speak to you, communicate with you, beyond what I’ve had time to tell you.

Obviously, nowhere here does Jesus use the word prayer, but this promise of companionship and peace and friendship, even union with God, where God speaks with us, and good things grow in our lives – it’s hard to experience anything close to this without a regular prayer practice. 

Before I say more, I’m going to be honest. 

When I began learning the Way of Jesus, decades ago, daily prayer was both over-commanded and filled with over-promises. 

I was told again and again, Jesus said we should pray. 

And I was promised that if I prayed and read my Bible every day, kind of magical things would happen in my life, and fast. 

This was motivating for me at first, so great! In my mid-teens to early twenties, I read the Bible just about every day, and I asked God for things, and shared my hopes and concerns with God, told God: you’re awesome. Really, I believe it, you’re the best. Because I thought God needed me to say that a lot. 

But over time, my interest in all this kind of came and went.

It became more and more of a “have to” and less of a “want to.”

Some of this was disappointment. My prayers didn’t always change my life as fast or as deep as I wanted them to. They certainly didn’t always seem to change the world or anyone else’s life, at least not most of the time. 

And some of this honestly was boredom. The Bible wasn’t always interesting, and neither were many of my attempts at conversation with the divine. 

And you know, you disciplined people in the world, some of you have the capacity to do things for a long time, even when they’re not always interesting to you or when you believe they’ll help you in the long run but you’re not sure if they are helping you today. 

And God bless the naturally disciplined people of the world, but I am not one of them. If things are interesting or helpful to me, they usually aren’t happening. 

And I’m not alone in having had my ups and downs with prayer. I know that.

You all may be more disciplined than me but you don’t necessarily pray more. This church is full of people I know who used to pray more in the past than you do these days. I know that because you tell me that. 

And this church is also full of people for whom prayer has never consistently connected either, so you try now and then, but not a lot. 

That’s why we’re starting the new year with this series on prayer

We are not going to command you to do anything. That’s not really our way at Reservoir. We don’t shame anyone or boss anyone around. We try to create an environment where we can all walk in the way of Jesus and flourish, but we’re not going to tell you what you have to do.

We are also not going to over-promise. Be like, if you pray, you’ll be happy, healthy, powerful, and rich. Or whatever. No blowing smoke in anyone’s ears here. 

But we will explore how to pray if it’s never clicked for you and you wish it would.

Or how to pray again if you don’t so much any more and would like to try again. 

Because prayer, and a daily prayer practice in particular, isn’t magic. And it can take some time to deliver. Sometimes you’ve got to try some different approaches too, to see what works best for you, or what works best for you in this particular moment of life. 

But over time, a daily prayer practice is one of the best ways, maybe the best way, to feel closer to God. To have faith in a loving God grows good things in your life. To have a sense that God communicates with you. And to have God grow more peace in you.

For me, over the past few years, daily prayer has become a want to and a need to – like, oh, I need this – instead of a “have to,” instead of a burden.

Daily prayer centers me in what’s most important. It anchors me in what I find to be most true and beautiful. In daily prayer, I am so often reminded of all the ways God is with me. And I very often gain tremendous direction and peace.  

And I’d love that for all of us who are interested. 

So how we’re going to finish today is we’ll try something out together. There are three ways of praying that are often part of my daily prayers – all ancient modes of Christian prayer that fit well in our contemporary world, and over time, have given me huge, huge benefits. Both interesting and helpful to me!

  1. The Examen – a prayer of self-reflection for discovering God with us and what we have to talk about with God.
  2. Silent contemplation – slowing down, getting some of the crud out of our heads, including the crud we think about God, and anchoring us in peace, in the truth. 
  3. Imaginative prayer in the gospels. Reading a story from the life of Jesus and using our imagination to see where we place ourselves in the story and how it speaks to us.



How to Pray the Examen

  1. Acknowledge presence and ask for God’s guidance.
  2. Review your day – 3-5 highs and lows
  3. Reflect on, talk to God about what you notice.  (Thank you, sorry, please)
  4. Look forward to the day to come, with hope, resolution, and prayer.

Why to Pray the Examen

  1. Over time, you’ll discover God in all things.
  2. It’s a powerful tool for personal growth.
  3. It can be endlessly adapted. 


Alright, friends, more in the weeks to come – here in the sermons, and in the workshops Ivy will lead as well. But for now, a closing prayer. 

The great vine of Heaven and Earth, source of life and abundance and good fruit, help you stay connected.

The Great Companion – Spirit of God and friend to us all, be with you and teach you everything you need to know.

May you be open to the great peace of Christ, so you can be centered and anchored, and not so troubled or afraid. 

May you be right where Jesus is, in awareness of the glory and goodness of our loving God. 


To Be A People of Blessing | Participatory Liturgy

Scripture: Luke 1: 26-50

Song: “Wherever Your Heart Is” by The Lone Bellow

Voice: John O’ Donohue 


Good morning! I’m Ivy, a pastor here, I use she/her pronouns – it is a delight to have you all in this space together this morning, the first Sunday of Advent. 

Advent is the season before Christmas, marked by the four Sundays leading to Christmas.  It’s a season where we long and wait for the coming of Jesus – and revisit all that it meant, and consider all that it still means for us and the world today.

And today we are holding a participatory liturgy service to start this season.

I’ll explain this service, and your involvement in it, in just a moment .. …but first a couple Advent -related announcements: 

Our Advent focus this year is the God who speaks – and this guide will help walk you through scripture, reflection questions, and invitations of exploring how that might be true -through our listening, imagination, our encouragement, and blessing.  Grab one on your way out – and explore it with a community group or others if you’d like! 

  • 12/17 – Christmas Choir
  • 12/17 – And an after-service Nativity experience with our elementary school kids.
  • 12/24 – And on Christmas Eve, we will have special candlelight services in person at 10:00 a.m. and online at 7:00 p.m. (Note the different times for that holiday!)


Today, you are about to engage and experience a participatory service. 

We offer these types of participatory liturgies about two times a year – and each time I’m excited to see what will unfold with the Spirit of God. So much of what is to come really is a choreography of your story and God’s story intersecting – with familiar prompts of scripture, prayer, and communion – but with a less front–of-the-stage-centered focused “teaching.”

We trust the Spirit of God to be our great teacher today, the one who guides us in communal and creative ways to deeper experiences of God’s love.

We realize that these services take a little more “work”… The word, “liturgy” in Greek roots, means work of the people. And so much of the experience, this morning –  as is often true – will rest on your willingness to lean in and engage, participate and create.  All of which we will give space for… and all with freedom.

*If you need a little space please take it, there are chairs setup around the edges of the Sanctuary – the prayer team will be available later in the service if you need it as well… but please do participate to the degree you are comfortable, as I trust you’ll find a rich return from that. As always we hope that you will experience the love of God, the gift of community and the joy of living – from exactly where you are at this morning, and know that you are welcome in this place – without exception. 

The focus of our Advent season this year is the ‘God who speaks.’  And we will get to wonder together how God is speaking still, how we discern God’s new possibilities for us, and how we join God in speaking good into being.

One way God speaks good into being is in the realm of blessings.  “The Bible is full of blessings. They are seen as a communication of life from God.” And one way we join God in speaking good into being is by blessing one another. 

In this service we are going to explore what it is to “be a people of blessing” – not in a soft/platitude – hashtag#I’m-blessed-sort of -way.  But in an empowered –  ‘standing in the darkest month of the year, standing in a (dark) world that is breaking over and over again – kind of way’… believing and embodying that there could be something so lovely about rediscovering our power to bless one another. In a way that could heal and renew one another – could rekindle a ‘little bit of fire’ in us – where we remember what and who we care for, who and what we are passionate about and love – and are called to love.

Throughout this service you’ll be invited to explore the power of blessing – through individual reflection, communal response, and movement.  I’ll guide you through what these “more communal” moments will look like and how to respond to one another in your groups.  You will be companioned by Mary’s story and song found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1 – as well as Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue.    

Let me pray for us, and then lead us into the first portion of our time.

Oh God, the one who blesses us – from the beginning until the end – help us to bless one another, to be a people of blessing.  We sit here with you now – maybe eager and maybe slightly anxious – of what this morning might bring.   And so I ask you now to remind us of your promise to us, that you are always with us –  that by and by you are by our side – that you will never leave us or forsake us.  And as we join with you today, may your deep, unending, love for us – be revealed at even greater depths.


Ivy:  Now we will move to our first Movement: Blessing Wherever Our Heart Is  – 

Let’s get started. 


MOVEMENT# 1 |  Bless Wherever Your Heart Is

1- Song | Band 

1st two stanzas and refrain

🎵I’m getting real good at talkin’ to strangers

Good with the silence, cussing and prayer

It’s a long way to our house, we should get started

I’ve seen the signs of tall tale dangers

Why do you say when the words are not there?

It’s a long way to nowhere, we should get started

We should get started

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

1- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1:26 -35 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

Mary said to the angel, 

“But I am a virgin – How can this be?” 

How can this be?” 

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be… 


Let it be…  

1- Song | Band 


I’m getting real good at talkin’ to strangers

Good with the silence, cussing and prayer

It’s a long way to our house, we should get started


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵


1- Ivy | Words & Invitation to Sharing
I wonder where Mary’s heart was when the angel greeted her?

I wonder if her heart skipped a beat and she lost her breath?

I wonder if she cussed – a million holy cusses – under her breath?

I wonder how much silence she needed to gather herself?
I wonder how much silence she needed to unravel herself?

I wonder how she prayed? What she prayed? 

I wonder if she wondered why she should even pray?

I wonder if God was searching for wherever Mary’s heart was? I wonder if in that searching her heart was blessed?

“Cussing, silence & prayer.”

You’ll find three strips of paper that have these words on them in your envelope – please take them out. 

I’m going to invite you to write on these strips of paper – and also scan your own heart, as you spend a moment with each of them.

There may be things in your personal life, or in your community, or in the world that light up ONE or all THREE of these words – cussing, silence and prayer – and there may be, even more words that reflect better the state of your heart today – but we are going to take a moment with these three.

1 Let’s start with silence.

  • Silence could be holy/connective/generative  – altogether good silence.
  • Silence could also could also be loneliness – emptiness – numbness…

How does silence resonate with you? Jot some thoughts or reasons ‘why’ down as they come.

2 Next is cussing:

  • Cussing could be a reveal health – an outlet – a relief valve for deep feelings
  • It could also be a state of unwanted surprise, dead-ends, despair, anger, fear, frustration

How does cussing resonate with you? Jot some thoughts or reasons ‘why’ down as they come.

3 Next is prayer:

  • Prayer could be alive, good, it could feel like action – movement.
  • Absent, like work, rote, or a longing 

How does prayer resonate with you? Jot some thoughts or reasons ‘why’ down as they come.


Now what I’m going to invite you to do now is to share one thing that you wrote down that you are comfortable sharing with the group about “wherever your heart is.”  (After you share your name and your pronouns if you’d like).

The group will only say one thing in response to your sharing, and that is

We bless you, wherever your heart is.” 

Take turns – and after you’re all done – you can take your three strips of paper to the wall and place them in an any-shade-of-green envelope.


MOVEMENT # 2 | Bless Those Throughout Your Life

2- Song | Band 

2nd stanza & refrain

🎵You always told me, go where the light is

Nobody showed you, how to get there

It’s a good time for trying to walk through the darkness 

We should get started


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵


2- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1: 39 – 45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, her cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 

“Blessed are you among women,

“Blessed are you among women,

and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

2- Song | Band 

2nd stanza & refrain

🎵You always told me, go where the light is

Nobody showed you, how to get there

It’s a good time for trying to walk through the darkness 

We should get started


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

2- Ivy | Words & Invitation to Reflect & WALL

I wonder if Elizabeth’s blessing changed the atmosphere in that room? In Mary’s heart?  Jumping in darkness and light, from overwhelm to movement, clenched heart  – to – open.?

I wonder if Elizabeth’s blessing despite the signs of tell-tale danger of Herod the Great, showed Mary how to walk?

I wonder if Elizabeth held some of Mary’s doubt until she could enwomb her own infinite possibilities? I wonder if it shirred up her dignity and belief in who she was meant to be.

The people throughout our lives – they have the capacity to shape, break, and save us. 

Likely this is true for you whether you are 15 or 80. 

You’ll find in your envelope three square cards.

1-One reads: “Blessed be those who have loved us, into becoming who we were meant to be.”

2-Another reads: “Blessed be those who looked for you and found you, with their kind hands. When desolation surrounded you.”

3-And the last one reads: “Blessed be those who have crossed our lives with dark gifts of hurt and loss. That have helped to school our minds in the art of disappointment.”

  • You aren’t going to share out loud in your groups this round – but take a moment to write the names of people throughout your life – who come to mind. And if you can – next to their name write how you knew or know them. 
    Example: Sally Powell, piano teacher *OR* Holly Potts, 5th grade lunch lady.
  • And when you are ready you can put these cards on the wall. You’ll find little tabs of red tape that you can stick them up with.
  • One exception is the person/people in your life that have hurt you – you can put that card in the envelope that you have, seal it, and put it on the wall if you’d like.

I’ll call us back in a couple of minutes.

As a body we’ll now communally bless all of these people who are represented on the cards and sealed envelopes. I’ll  read the blessing – and then we can all say the response that seals that blessing together (it will be on a slide). 

1- “Blessed be those who have loved us, into becoming who we were meant to be.”

RESPONSE: May those who love us be blessed. 

2-Another reads: “Blessed be those who looked for you and found you, with their kind hands. When desolation surrounded you.”

RESPONSE: May those who search for us be blessed.

3-And the last one reads: “Blessed be those who have crossed our lives with dark gifts of hurt and loss. That have helped to school our minds in the art of disappointment.”

RESPONSE: May God, Bless the space between.


MOVEMENT #3 | Bless the fire in you 

3- Song | Band 

2nd stanza  

🎵Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you


Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you🎵(repeat as many times as makes sense)


3- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1:51-55

And then Mary praises God, and with a little fire in her belly she sings;

He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones

    and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty.

He has come to the aid of his child Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


3- Song | Band 

3rd stanza  

🎵Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you


Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you🎵(repeat as many times as makes sense)

3- Ivy | Words & Invitation to Share

Elizabeth’s words flame the embers of knowing in Mary. Something Mary knew deep down, these ancient, yet prophetic words of Isaiah… and she sings them anew for herself and for the world. 

It’s the little bit of fire left in her… as she stands in the face of all that is overwhelming.

This little bit of fire – that keeps her in it – that keeps her searching to see the world as God sees it. 

And some days this is all we can do, keep trying to see the world as God sees it – even if our reality defies it at every turn. Even if the powerful are still on their thrones, and have their hands full of riches – and even as the poor and powerless are still in the trenches – hungry and suffering. Even if our embers of hope for justice and love are cold. Some days all we have is the mystery and promises of God that feel so ancient – but that reside deep within us… A found little fire left in us – – that in and of itself might be a blessing.

I wonder if Mary’s ancient song is our song too?

  • What do you think? Do you have a little fire left in you? And if so – what is it for? 

Are there things you care about and for? 

Things that keep you up at night that you are passionate about?

  •  The health of your family system
  • Local neighborhood issue
  • Hope of the world
  • Events of the world
  • Your work/vocation
  •  Share in group


  • Take a minute to sit with this question – you should have one last card in your hands.
    You can jot your thoughts down – and as you are ready you’ll share one thing you feel  comfortable sharing in your group.
  • The group’s response this time will be: “We bless the fire in you”



*Ivy words before interlude

Everytime we have said a blessing today  – we have used the word, “MAY” –  “May you be blessed”…”May those who love you be blessed.” etc. This is because the word “May” is a spring through which the Spirit of God is invoked to come forth with full presence and effect. It is not of our own power. The Spirit of God is the presence and secret energy behind every blessing here and in your days. (xvi)

To be a people of blessing is to move around our days, walk upon this earth – bumping up against people – like all these envelopes on these walls – wherever their hearts are –  in grief, in joy, in stress, in numbness – and yet as best we can we are called to notice, pay attention and care for the people around us.

But to live our lives in this manner – we need sustenance. We need to return to and draw from God, the source of all blessing. 

So during this next time – you are invited to continue to search for wherever your heart is – and the hearts of those around you. 

And here are your options:

  • Take your fire paper to the wall, stick it in a green envelope & take some time to read a few green envelopes.  
  • In the red envelopes are blessings – that you can take for yourself, or move to a green envelope that you think might need one.  
  • You can take communion – the source of all nourishment.
  • You can receive prayer from the Prayer Team. 

 May you find the sustenance you need along the way.

*INTERLUDE* | Searching

*Song | Band 

3rd stanza …….into 4th stanza

🎵Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you


Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you🎵



MOVEMENT #4 | The Blessing of God

4- Song | Band 

4th stanza – on repeat****

🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵


4- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1:47-50

And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.

And she said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.

    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name;

indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him

    from generation to generation – because by and by he’s by their side…

  from generation to generation – because by and by he’s by our side.

And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 


4- Song | Band 

4th stanza – on repeat****

🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

4- Ivy | Words  

The span of history  – from Abraham – to the immediate descendants of Abraham – to our ancestors, to us, and to every generation in between – and to the next generation, and the generation after that – we are blessed to know that 

God looks upon us with favor,

The Might One has done great things for us

God’s mercy is for all of us… for everyone… 

By and by  God is by our side. 


These are the found blessings – things that are just true of God 

It feels so good to know – that By and By God’s by our side.

So we are going to invite all the generations in this room to sing this refrain together …..

 ***Song | Band  – Lead this part…

If you feel like you are in the older generation sing with us:
🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

If you feel like you are somewhere in the “middle” generation sing with us:
🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

If you feel like you are somewhere in the “young” generation sing with us:

🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵


Then Band leads congregation the whole song from top to bottom:

I’m getting real good at talkin’ to strangers

Good with the silence, cussing and prayer

It’s a long way to our house, we should get started

I’ve seen the signs of tall tale dangers

What do you say when the words are not there?

It’s a long way to nowhere, we should get started

We should get started


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is


You always told me, go where the light is

Nobody showed you, how to get there

It’s a good time for trying to walk through the darkness

We should get started


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is


Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you

Feels so good to know

That by and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side


I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

Ivy – Prayer/Benediction
Oh God who blesses, blesses and blesses us – so that we can in turn bless bless bless one another – May we treasure all the words spoken, shared, and those tucked away here today and ponder them in our hearts. And may they shape the blessings we become as we move about our days  – searching for your heart Jesus in this world. AMEN

The Way of Jesus When the World Breaks

Hello, friends, it’s an honor to be speaking with you today. 

Today I’m going to be talking about the way of Jesus when the world breaks. That’s the title: The Way of Jesus When the World Breaks.

We’ll unpack those words some more.

You’ll be hearing that phrase “the way of Jesus” a lot in the weeks to come, probably well beyond that. 

And “when the world breaks” is the title of a recent book by a fellow pastor in the post-evangelical collective. His name is Jason Miller. The subtitle of that book is “the surprising hope and subversive promises in the teachings of Jesus.” It’s a good book. It’s a reflection on the scripture I’m about to read for us, a famous passage the tradition has called the blessings, or the beatitudes. 

Words like these – hope, promises, blessings – they can be hard to access, strange words to say when the world breaks. And yet they are words we need, they are words faith calls us to. 

We’re going to talk about different ways the world breaks, about the kinds of wounds that don’t heal, or at least that don’t heal all the way.

That means we’re going to talk about the wounds of war, and specifically the conflict, the war in Israel and Palestine. 

And we’ll talk a little about personal wounds like trauma as well. 

I don’t aim to say anything graphic or retraumatizing or anything today. But I’d planned on speaking on something like this to start our “Way of Jesus” series, and then personal and global events both pushed me into proximity around so many wounds. So I’m very tender this week. Perhaps you are as well. If so, let’s be tender for a moment together, trusting in the kindness of God and the kindness of this community. If you need to step back or step out at some point, though, that’s welcome too. We value freedom here. 

These are huge topics. When it comes to the trauma of war, the pains of multigenerational trauma and violence, even the topic of personal trauma, none of us have the answers. It’s too big. When it comes to wounds that don’t heal, world-breaking pains, we only ever have the beginnings of what to say, but we’ve got to say what we have, I believe, and not be silent. 

And I think what I have to say is a couple things about the way of Jesus toward finding God, finding life when the world breaks, or maybe about God’s ways of finding us, and helping us find ourselves and one another again when the world breaks. And I think that’s important, I think that’s good news.

So let me read today’s scripture, and pray, and get into it.

This is the fifth chapter of Matthew, the first 12 verses. It’s set in Matthew at the beginning of the longest, maybe the most important set of teachings of Jesus that the world has. People call it the Sermon on the Mount. And it starts like this.

Matthew 5:1-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Blessed are you. Happy are you…. as your world is breaking apart.

Jesus’ words are so strange.

Matthew sets Jesus up within his tradition to be a new Moses here: a mountain-top revelator, a wisdom maker, a law giver for his people. 

But Jesus doesn’t start with law old or new. He’ll get there. We will too in a couple of weeks. But Jesus begins with these blessings, these pathways to God, these promises of the good life. 

The Greek word we translate as “blessed” or “happy” is makarios. Jason Miller calls this “the blissful existence of the gods.”

And Jesus says that god-like blessing – comfort, peace, mercy, an inheritance befitting the children of God – it can all be yours.

And the way in is poverty, humility, mourning, hunger. The hard work of kindness and peace-making and love in the face of opposition. 

Some commentators think Jesus is commending a way of being in the world. If you want the blissful existence of the gods, here’s the way. It’s purity of heart, it’s mercy, it’s peacemaking.

Some commentators think Jesus isn’t commanding a way of being, but promising a path to happiness and blessing for people who think they’ve missed it. If you’re poor, if you’re small, if you have suffered loss, if you long for a better life or a better world, you’re not excluded from the happiness of the gods. No, no, there’s a way in for us all.

A promise for those who think the gates have been shut on us. Or a surprising path to what’s best for us all. I think it’s some of both of those things.

But they’re strange words. They’re meant to catch us off guard, I think, to stop us in our tracks for a minute, so we can shift our assumptions. So we can break open a little more and let the light in. 

One of the years when my life broke open was in 2017. It felt at first like it was just breaking apart.

I don’t want to swim into the details too much, but I’ll tell you three things.

In 2017, Larry Nassar was on trial for the sexual abuse, the sexual assault of hundreds of girls in America’s national gymnastics program. I found myself following the coverage relentlessly and sitting in my car or my living room just crying and unable to focus on much else.

At the same time, someone I knew and trusted sent me a critical email which casually mentioned by name the neighbor who had sexually abused me when I was a preteen. This person mentioned what had happened to me as a bad thing that happened to me as a kid, but at least not so bad – after all, I turned out OK, didn’t I?

And then thirdly, in response to that email, and the sadness and anger it provoked in me, I looked up that neighbor to discover that in recent years, he had reoffended again, had abused another pre-teen boy, and was tried, convicted, and returned to prison. 

Those three things were hard for me to process.

I was well into my forties. I had done a lot of healing and growth work around my childhood and these issues, but that year broke my world open again. 

And I needed help.

To be clear, I am not thankful for any of these things – the horror of widespread sexual abuse and assault of children, my own scarred wounds, people who touch our wounds without care or kindness. 

These are curses, not blessings. 

But with the help of God and friends, amidst these curses, I was drawn deeper into understanding the beautiful and broken story of my life in ways that in time increased my peace, hope, and faith. I am so grateful for this life of mine. It is so good. I was also drawn deeper into love – love for myself, love for the living God, love for life, love for you. 

Jesus says it can be like this. The poor in spirit, the meek, the humbled – God’s kingdom, the beloved community, is especially for them. Comfort, nourishment, the full inheritance of the children of God is for them. For us. 

How is this so? I don’t think I can reduce it to a formula, but I find the words “mourn” and “hunger” helpful. 

To mourn is not just to be sad, not just to grieve, but to do something with that grief – to bring that grief into the light of day, into relationships or community of some form.

And to hunger and thirst is to want things to be made right. This word “righteousness” – dikaiosune – really means righteousness and justice. It’s not just about personal morality, it’s about all things, all things, being set right, just, whole. 

In my case, I was so sad, so angry, day after day, that I couldn’t function fully. I knew I needed help. I asked a few people I trusted to help me in finding a therapist. And after a couple months, I found someone I thought would be OK, maybe just good enough, but who turned out to be great. 

I also chose, I chose very carefully, two other people to talk with these wounds about. Our wounds are not for everyone. We can’t trust everyone to be safe with our wounds. But if we trust nobody, things usually get worse. Time alone never heals. Time alone never heals.

We need the help of God and friends. 

In my case, the therapy and the friendships helped me to feel and express and understand some very old griefs. It was a time of mourning for me. Thanks be to God, my therapist, my wife, one other trusted mentor and friend met that mourning with great compassion and encouragement for me to more deeply learn and practice compassion for myself as well. 

Knowing I’d hit a moment in life where I needed more time and space for healing in my inner life, I also embarked upon an ancient, year-long structure of reflection and prayer designed to come more deeply into an awareness of God’s great love for us and into discovering the reality, the presence, and the work of God’s spirit with us, day after day. 

That’s the way of Jesus. Part of it, at least. To live in a beautiful, but terribly broken world, and out of our poverty of spirit, to mourn, and to hunger and thirst for things to be set right. And to hope that God is with us, that we still have an inheritance of blessing. And to ask for help in finding it. 

Some people call trauma that wound that doesn’t heal. 

A clinician in Psychology Today published an article on the 7 Hurts that never heal. They are:

  -the death of a loved one

-mental illness or chronic illness



-permanent injury

-and trauma.

These are wounds that cut so deep, or persist so much, that they never fully leave us. Pain can lessen, but it may return. And the healing that comes will still leave scars. 

The article said that we cope with these hurts that never heal by sharing them – not with everyone, but not alone either. We share them. And we look for pathways for growth, and for some way they can become incorporated in our purpose. We hope to become wounded healers for ourselves and for others. 

There’s nothing about fixing or removing these things. Not possible. But we heal in part when we don’t bear them alone, and when with the help of God and friends, this garbage starts to compost into material through which we grow and help. 

Bad religion shames us for these hurts. Or like another addiction, it tries to offer us ways to deny or escape these wounds that never heal. 

The way of Jesus names our wounds. None of us go through life without any of them. But it names our wounds as beloved children. It names our wounds as access points to pathways of healing – to mourn, to long for a better way, to ask for help, to give and receive mercy, to grow into peacemakers ourselves, no matter the cost. And to take joy in the goodness that comes our way in all this. 

The way of Jesus does promise a life free from hurt. I can’t promise you that either. But the way of Jesus promises that our wounds can take us into the holy, to be held, to be accompanied, to taste the bliss of the gods, amidst the hurt of this life. 

Friends, if our world were not at war, that’s the talk. The way of Jesus in our hurts that do not heal. But remember those seven hurts that do not heal – death of a loved one, permanent injury, trauma, etc. – they’re all playing out in Israel and Palestine right now, and for many who have loved ones there. 

And to be alive right now and to care about this is to be in a constant state of exposure to trauma.  

A lot of people have had a lot of words to say this past week. Many of those words have missed the mark, have dug into one wound or another. 

But with the help of God, and with your trust, in prayer, and in relationships with many who are grieving, I’ll do my best for a minute.

Last weekend, Hamas militants from Gaza attacked civilians in Israel. Hundreds of civilians, perhaps over a thousand, including children, elderly, were killed, brutally, in a large-scale terrorist attack. 

Friends and colleagues of mine, world leaders as well, have named this as the largest attack on Jews since the ending of the Shoah, the Nazi Holocaust, nearly 80 years ago. Each victim a beloved community member, an image bearer of our Creator God. 

It’s also true that this attack, and these deaths, have occurred within a context. Palestinian people and lands have been occupied by Israel for decades. Numbers are contested, but many, many, many thousands of Palestinian Arabs have been injured and killed in the generations-long conflict. 

Israel proper is a very small nation, and it is filled with Jews and Arabs who have suffered losses in violent conflict. It is also filled with people whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were killed in the 20th century’s largest, most infamous genocide.

It is also true that Palestinian lands are occupied and encircled. Palestinians are a stateless people who suffer large rates of poverty and suffering and human rights violations. Israel has declared war against Hamas, the perpetrators of the terror attack. That war now includes a siege of Gaza, a strip of land the size of an American city, containing over two million people, half of whom are children, all of whom also beloved community members and image bearers of God. Access to electricity and food and medical supplies is being cut off, which is its own war crime. 

There’s more to say. And it’s changing every day. I don’t want to keep describing world events and trauma to you. I will likely not get it all right or say it all right. I am not an expert on any of these things.

But I say this to say that children of God have suffered, and are suffering, enormous wounds that do not heal. Most of us are proximate to this suffering not just through the news but as American tax-payers. And many of us, in our networks of family and friends and travel, are proximate to these wounds relationally. I know I am. I’ve reached out to and heard from friends, neighbors, colleagues and partners in our interfaith justice work. I’ve been offering my shared grief and listening to what people had to say. 

Let me just pass on some of their words to you – as models of grief that hold wisdom and compassion as well. 

From one rabbinic friend: I am sad to see the news of innocent civilians killed & terrorized in Israel with surprise attacks by Hamas. I am also worried about the innocent civilians in Gaza who may pay a terrible price. This horrific cycle of violence is endless. May God not extinguish our hopes for peace.

From a Palestinian Christian with ties to our church: You can condemn the killing and kidnapping of civilians. And you can condemn eight decades of occupation and oppression. There’s room enough for both.

From an Muslim scholar and journalist who has preached with me here before: In Islamic law, non-combatants are never legitimate targets in war. There are no exceptions for “colonial settlers” — which Muslims themselves could be, in various contexts. It is a principle all Muslims should defend — and call on Israel to respect.

From the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

You can’t have it both ways: It’s morally indefensible to kill Palestinian civilians, even when framed as a fight against terrorism. And taking the lives of Israeli civilians is equally inexcusable, even when framed as a battle against occupation.

Lastly, from leaders Telos, Americans working for just peace for Palestine and Israel and in other global conflicts:

There is no doubt that Hamas committed a war crime against Israel and Israeli citizens. These unjustifiable atrocities must be condemned and prosecuted. Hamas must be held accountable. All hostages must be returned home safely and at once. Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas. And to pursue justice for the victims of its crimes and freedom for all hostages. Israel does not have the right to indiscriminately retaliate against the millions of civilians in Gaza. International law and the rules of war prohibit collective punishment in any form. War crimes do not justify more war crimes. Atrocity does not justify atrocity. 

Friends, as I listen, there’s a lot that I don’t know. But here’s four things I do know about this suffering when the world breaks. 

One, I believe that victims, the wounded, need the way of Jesus. I’m not saying Israelis and Palestinians need to become Christians or believe in Jesus or anything like that. That’s an offense. People can choose their faith, their religion, and their lack thereof. No, I’m saying victims, the wounded, need the way of Jesus we’ve talked about here. They need to grieve and mourn in the kindness and relationship of others’ compassion. They need to grieve and mourn their community’s losses, and as I hope you heard in some of our friends I quoted, for our healing, they’ll need the power, the love to grieve their enemy’s losses as well. This giving and receiving of mercy saves us all, even if that mercy is in the hows and whys of how we defend or resist. 

Secondly, If we have passion around this conflict, if we find ourselves thinking unmerciful thoughts or saying or writing unmerciful words, we might want to slow our roll for a minute on our most strident opinions and try to listen to someone else’s pain. So we can be sure that when we advocate, we do advocate for a justice that is merciful, a justice that heals. This week, I’ve tried to listen more than talk and have reached a place where I have some clarity about what I’m asking my national representatives to do and not do, as well as things I will and won’t say in the court of public opinion.   

Three, if we’re not directly impacted by this conflict, we still have the opportunity to mourn with those who mourn, and so to walk in this way of Jesus as friends. People who mourn with others listen more than talk. People in mourning need to be embraced, they need our presence more than answers or judgment. That gets complicated sometimes because grief includes anger, and people can say some pretty raw things when they’re angry. Mostly, though, when we show up for others in their grief, they experience this way of Jesus immediately. There’s a blessing that comes. I’d invite you, my friends, to join me, in showing up for the grief of your neighbors. You can do that personally, with anyone you know that might have ties and stakes to Palestine or Israel. You can do that publicly too. On Monday, I went with my neighbor to a Jewish organized event for Israel, and then later I went to a Palestinian event by myself as well. There was more going on at both events than grief. There were things said at both events that I can not abide. But I stood there in silence to grieve with those who grieve. 

Lastly, in addition to advocacy and shared grief, I urge you to pray now. To turn your questions and grief and anger and humility and poverty of spirit to God and ask for peace, ask for access to your inheritance, ask for help and mercy. 

In our GBIO community, an ancient prayer has been circulating the past few days. A prayer from two hundred years ago, prayed by a rabbi in what is now Ukraine. I’d like to share that prayer with you all, to close in praying this prayer together, that in the worlds’ hurts that are not healing, and in our own world-breaking hurts as well, we could know the presence, the help, the nourishing love and blessing and peace of God.

Rabbi Nachman’s prayer for peace:

May it be Your will,
Holy One, our God, our ancestors’ God,
that you erase war and bloodshed from the world
and in its place draw down
a great and glorious peace
so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they learn war any more.

Rather, may all the inhabitants of the earth
recognize and deeply know
this great truth:
that we have not come into this world
for strife and division
nor for hatred and rage,
nor provocation and bloodshed.

We have come here only
to encounter You,
eternally blessed One.

And so,
we ask your compassion upon us;
raise up, by us, what is written:

I shall place peace upon the earth
and you shall lie down safe and undisturbed
and I shall banish evil beasts from the earth
and the sword shall not pass through your land.
but let justice come in waves like water
and righteousness flow like a river,
for the earth shall be full
of the knowledge of the Holy One
as the waters cover the sea.

So may it be.
And we say:

Old and New

A few years ago, it seemed like an old friend and I were drifting apart. At least one of the reasons was that we’d both changed over the years – changed some in our faith, our religious practice, some of our values and lifestyle. It was bothering me, because I knew other people who had lost old friends, who had even best friends cut them off when they went through these kinds of changes, like friends can’t worship differently, or live differently, or believe differently. I didn’t understand this, but I also didn’t want to lose an old friend, so I flew out to visit him and asked if we could talk about this. 

Long story short, we haven’t lost our friendship. We’ve stuck in it across our differences. But part of how this made sense to him was interesting to me. He was like: Steve, some of us are really focused on innovation – looking for new and better ways to do things, to live, to believe. And that’s good. He used the spiritual language of calling, like maybe for some of us, our purpose, our destiny, our way of living in God’s call for our lives, is to focus on innovation

But for some of us, my friend said, we’re more interested in preservation how to hold on to old things and transmit them to future generations, how to not lose ways of doing things, ways of living, ways of believing that we’ve inherited from the past. He said:

This is good too. Some of us are called to preservation, especially when everything is changing so fast. 

He said it seemed like he was more about preservation – in his religious life, in some of his beliefs, and that maybe I’m called more to innovation. Different interests, different calls maybe, but why couldn’t we respect and appreciate each other? Of course we could still be friends. And we are.  

I’ve kept thinking over the years about my friends’ categories, his values for both preservation and innovation. He had churches in mind, for instance. 

He thinks of us here at Reservoir as innovators. This church started in the 1990s to explore the life and teaching and ways of Jesus for a very secular, not very churchgoing culture. And that’s given us a commitment to some things which haven’t always been traditional our faith –

  • to use ordinary language for religious ideas,
  • to chip away at the patriarchy and racism in our tradition,
  • to value the love and the relationships of queer people,
  • to integrate faith with science and day to day working lives and other parts of so-called secular culture.

We’re not the only ones doing these things, but they’re really important to us. I guess that makes us innovators. 

This summer, though, while I was on a sabbatical, I took a couple of retreats and worshiped with a very different Christian community nearby. More than they read the Bible in worship, they chant it, kind of like you would have heard in a church seven, eight hundred years ago. They remember and celebrate the faith and example of other believers that have been dead for hundreds of years. They’re preserving an old tradition, so their worship is very unfamiliar to me but also beautiful and rich. 

This goes way beyond church and religion of course. There’s a business in my neighborhood that does all kinds of delicious things with the flavors they add to the croissant. Innovators. And there’s another business that likes to say they serve the best Middle Eastern falafel in Greater Boston. Friends who are from that region are like – meh, it’s nice that they try. But still, A for effort. They are preservationists.

I taught middle and high schoolers for years in a small, start-up public school in Boston. We were trying to do something really special for the kids in our community. And so we merged some best practices we could find for small school innovation in public schools, with a holistic approach we borrowed from a Christian ministry in Hong Kong, and a kind of elite private school college prep curriculum. I know we were the only school in the world playing with the combination of sources we were using. Innovators.

But then I went to be the principal of a comprehensive public high school in a nearby city. It was the only high school in town, it was something like 150 years old, and for a lot of the community, what they most wanted to see was that their kids’ high school experience would be just like theirs. Change sometimes came hard and slow. There were a lot of preservationists around.

Old and new. Some of us focus on preserving the old, some of innovating the new.

The more I’ve sat with this, though, this doesn’t seem quite right. I feel like at least the best things in life value the old and the new. The best things are preservationists and innovators. 

That old-school falafel joint – they’ve gotten into online ordering.

That trendy croissant store – they’re working with a miracle of butter and flour developed in the 13th century.

The monastery I like to visit. They may chant 12th century hymns, but one of the monks texts me the security code to get around the building when it’s time for one of my retreats.

Even us at Reservoir, we may be doing new things to be an accessible and winsome community for the times and place we live in. But we’re still committed to the Way of Jesus, an itinerant 1st century rabbi, himself an innovator in an ancient wisdom tradition. 

The best of just about everything is old and new. It’s preserving and innovating. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it’s something Jesus felt the need to affirm and say some stuff about. 

Here’s one place, in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 13:52 (Common English Bible) 

52 Then Jesus said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.”

Treasures old and new. 

Jesus is most specifically talking about a group called scribes. They were religious experts in his culture, but also legal experts. So these were the people who drew up contracts like marriages, land sales, mortgages. 

Jesus has a word for teachers, for pastors, lawyers, real estate agents who want to do their work God’s way. 

He says it’s like a person who has an old family heirloom, passed down for generations. And they also have the newest gadget they picked up this year. And they love and use them both.

Old and new, preservation and innovation. 

This is good life advice. In any profession, we should draw upon the established norms, the best practices, the accumulated knowledge passed down over time. Preserve it, use it, learn and be wise. 

And we shouldn’t only be stuck in the past. Teachers can adapt new technologies when they make classroom learning more efficient or more engaging. Pastors, lawyers, property managers, you name it, we can do things differently when we find a better way.

Old and new, preservation and innovation. 

It’s part of the Way of Jesus as well. 

There is wisdom in the roots and heritage of the faith – in the ancient sacred texts, in the tradition – that is worth learning and using. And yet the Way of Jesus is also ever-evolving. Nothing stands still, everything is changing, religions, faiths, spiritual quests as well. 

This wisdom of old and new reminds me of something else Jesus said, something a little more specific, this one from the 9th chapter of Matthew. 

Matthew 9:14-17 (Common English Bible) 

14 At that time John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees frequently fast, but your disciples never fast?”

15 Jesus responded, “The wedding guests can’t mourn while the groom is still with them, can they? But the days will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they’ll fast.

16 “No one sews a piece of new, unshrunk cloth on old clothes because the patch tears away the cloth and makes a worse tear.

17 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins so that both are kept safe.”

This is a friendly conversation between old and new. A few folks are like – we fast. This religious practice is really important to us. Part of our heritage, our faith. And notice, Jesus isn’t like – that’s stupid. You don’t need to do that. 

He respects their practice. He says his own disciples will return to it at some point. But something else is going for them now, so they’re doing things differently. 

And then he tells this little anecdote from the worlds of clothes-mending and wine-making. Everyday life. He’s like: if you want something new, you can’t only use the old to get it. Old wineskins are great for holding old wine – which can be a treasure. The container and the wine have aged and stretched together. But to get something new – to make new wine – you need a new container as well. 

Jesus is not saying the old is bad. 

He was what we’d call poor. Everyone in his circles kept wearing and passing along old clothes. And Jesus has a word about how to best preserve them. 

Jesus lived in the patterns of an old faith tradition. He didn’t start anything from scratch. He learned how to pray from the psalm book in his Bible. He learned about rest and joy and justice and the goodness of God from the best ancient wisdom and practice of his tradition. 

Respect and preserve what’s worth keeping. 

But he also said:

there are some things I’m doing differently for a reason.

New wine in his culture can be a metaphor for the new activity of the Spirit of God. The hope, the redemption, the new possibilities God is making available at this time in history. And Jesus says:

to keep up with what God is making possible, you have to innovate. You have to try new things, to not be afraid to adapt and change. 

This is the nature of life, the nature of God, and the nature of this church community too. 

When I worked in schools, there were always debates going on between old and new ways of doing things. What books kids would read, what assignments they would do and how those would or wouldn’t be graded, how teachers would impart material to their students and lead discussions, just about everything in the profession had these old vs. new debates around them. 

And a lot of those debates went nowhere because they got stuck in old vs. new, right vs. wrong, when the truth is that there are things about education and learning that have been practiced over decades or centuries that are worth preserving and there are also new things we’re trying to accomplish that require new tools. 

  • What’s worth keeping?
  • And what new things do we need to try to accomplish new goals?
  • Were much more interesting questions than is the old or the new better?

Same with almost any area of life. When our kids were little, we picked up on so many debates on the best way to parent young children.

  • How do you help them sleep better?
  • Teach them right from wrong?
  • Help them learn how to read?
  • Do you want them to depend on you more or less, and in what ways? 

And again, it felt like everyone in the conversation was like: the old way is good. It worked when I was a kid. Or the opposite – the old way sucks, it’s gonna ruin your kids. Now we know this way is better. Old or new, right or wrong. I wish it could have all been a little less judgy, a little humbler, and we could have asked more: what’s worth keeping? What do we appreciate about the old ways? And what new things are we trying for, that might take some new tools? 

Friends, I believe that life isn’t just like this. God is like this as well. In our faith traditions, we like to emphasize the unchanging nature of God. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. 

And to a degree, this is right. God’s nature is unchanging. Three times the Bible says God is something…. That God is Spirit. That God is Truth. That God is Love. I don’t think that ever changes. God is always omnipresent spirit, never sometimes all contained in the body of one cricket or something. God is always true. God is always love. And you could add things… God is always just, kind, creative, and so on. 

But the Bible at least teaches that God tries new things. God does new things. God doesn’t just set a plan for the universe in motion and lets it go. No, God adapts. God responds. God improvises. 

For instance, let’s say God hopes one good thing for our lives. Maybe God hoped that last year we’d break some toxic pattern in our lives, some addiction we use to numb out, some habit of criticism or meanness or self-sabotage. And God was helping people and resources show up to help us. But we missed it. We weren’t paying attention. We resisted the growth. We just didn’t have it in us. 

God’s not going to just hit replay on last year’s experiences and hope it goes differently. God notices the same fail and might try something different and hope we have it in us to respond this time. 

That’s what Jesus was saying in his generation. He was embodying a tradition of spiritual teaching and of prophetic witness. He was revealing ways to be in relationship with God, to be in loving connection with self, neighbor, enemy, and creator, and to live more fruitfully and justly as well. All of this was shaped by the best of an old tradition, but the ways Jesus was doing that were new. New wine. New divine activity. New possibility. 

So Jesus says to these curious seekers, don’t be distracted by the tradition you don’t see. Notice the new thing God is doing. It’s here for you. Receive it, adapt and change. It’s worth it. 

This by the way is what Reservoir is up to. 

This week and the next four weeks, we’re in our annual We Are Reservoir series. It’s a time when we remember some of our shared values and purpose. We try to make it easy to connect or reconnect with others. And we invite everyone to find ways to belong and to contribute to a community that we hope nourishes each of us while also connecting us to something bigger than ourselves.

So you’ll hear a lot of invitations… invitations to belong, to connect with community, to eat together. Invitations to become a member or to remember why you’re still a member. Invitations to give and volunteer – to contribute to the good our community is shaping together. We hope you’ll say YES to the invitations that seem right for you, and know that for anything you don’t say YES to, that’s OK as well. You’re in charge of your own life, and we all can trust one another to find our ways. 

This month, our sermons will in part explore part of the vision of Reservoir, the way we do things, the life together we’re promoting, that we think has value of the church, but also has value for our lives beyond the church too.

And part of that vision is our spirit of innovation, our willingness to stay rooted while adapting, not being afraid of change. It’s our way of old and new. 

So, on the most basic level, Reservoir is a Christian church. It’s a community that is promoting a way of being human that is rooted in a deep and ancient tradition. 

We read and study and teach sacred texts that are millennia old. They teach us about God and humans and justice and the good life, and how to be in community, and how to live in our bodies, and find more love, joy, and peace in a troubled world or in a restless self. 

Some of our technologies of worship and prayer and ethics and learning and being in healthy relationships are super old too. Because we think the Way of Jesus has life and wisdom to it. It’s worth learning, preserving, and transmitting. 

But Reservoir is also trying to be a new wineskin in which God can do new things for us, our neighbors, and our broader communities. 

When we were getting started, people were realizing that the age of churches as the moral cops of their communities had passed. More and more in this region of the Northeast United States, and really much of the country and the world, people just aren’t looking to churches to tell the whole world what’s right and wrong anymore. That age has passed. To be honest, churches blew it. That’s part of why that age has passed. 

So Reservoir doesn’t do that, even when some people want us to. We don’t lay down the law for all our members, let alone for the community at large, saying if you want to be part of this church, or you want God to approve of your life, you’re going to live exactly this way. 

We don’t do that. We try to create a community where people can be in meaningful relationship with an ancient and wise spiritual and moral tradition, where people can be in a safe and kind community that values personal growth and goodness and justice, where people can even learn relate to an all-wise, all-loving unseen spirit we call God. And we trust that to work. We trust that to help us move in greater love, purpose, health, and goodness.

A generation ago, more followers of Jesus started to realize that people of different sexual identity or orientation shouldn’t be stigmatized anymore, that there are healthier and more helpful ways of re-reading a few ancient texts in our Bible that had been condemning of our queer siblings.

We were like, we want in on that. We can learn how to practice some of our old values while also respecting the love and dignity of our queer siblings and queer selves, and celebrating some different expressions of holy and good gender expression and faithful loving relationship.

Same with a lot of things. Reservoir is at its best when we set our anchor in the deep well of an old faith while at the same time setting our sails to catch the new winds of the Spirit of God. 

I know that metaphor breaks down as all metaphors do, but I hope you get the picture. This is a community of old and new, of preservation and innovation, of profound respect for the ancient faith tradition we keep returning to and of bold and hopeful embrace of new ways of living that faith, when those better match the new wine, the new possibilities that God is presenting in our times. 

I hope you find this community a beautiful and helpful place to support your own best life and faith. I also hope for your lives as a whole, you can enjoy asking those questions in all the arenas. What is worth keeping? What is worth preserving? Since the old is sometimes good and helpful and true. While also not being afraid when lives change, when times change, when needs in your life change, and asking: what new things are worth trying this day, this season, so I don’t miss the new things God is doing around me too.

Panel on Beloved Community

Hello everyone! Memorial Day weekend often marks the unofficial start of summer and I am incredibly excited about our summer ahead, here at Reservoir!  We will have a few guest preachers here this summer, starting with Taj Smith next week who will be a part of leading our PRIDE service – so be sure to make it if you can. I’m thankful for these guest voices that will be enriching our services over the summer weeks.

It also got me excited to take this opportunity to hear from voices within our Reservoir community. So today our sermon will invite the voices of Maleka Donaldson, Cliff Chuang and Kate Henderson. I’ll let them introduce themselves in a moment – but as a traditional sermon often does, please allow their voices to invite you into deeper learning, to invite and inspire you to consider how loving God and loving others matters in this world.


Today the conversation that these three will have with one another and with us will hang on the familiar phrase, “beloved community.” Beloved Community is Reservoir’s five year vision – specifically to continue to become the Beloved Community we are called to be, one that is: 

  1. Diverse and anti-racist.
  2. Welcoming, and a place of profound belonging. 
  3. Radically generous.
  4. Empowering wholeness, love, and justice in people and communities, promoting whole life flourishing.
  5. Innovating as a church in a post-Christian world, so that our ministry is less dependent on any one gathering but includes many life-giving new ways to experience and be church.

We preached a whole sermon series on ‘beloved community’ in 2020, and our community group content has centered this vision – but I know that it is a phrase that is hard to digest, hard to put legs on. This is part of the reason I’m excited about Maleka, Cliff and Kate’s voices because they are going to share how they are  living out this vision of Beloved Community in their own contexts and hear some stories in that vein… stories that stir and awaken our own stories. 

The ‘beloved community’ was a phrase popularized by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as other leaders in the civil rights struggle. It referred to a WAY OF BEING IN THE WORLD that was equitable, just, inclusive.  A community they believed God was shaping with our help.   

The beloved community is an interconnected way of being with one another, that I believe is crucial for us today.  Beyond its utopian sound, this phrase –  “beloved community,” is one that asks us to do the intentional work of staying connected to one another, to knowing one another,  listening to one another with all our differences present, so that transformation can occur in us, and in the world around us. Beloved Community is about inclusiveness and belonging, socially, and economically, and it helps us live freer, healthier, happier lives in all aspects of our being.

“Beloved community” is the spiritual call to all of us. One that enlivens us to live this life, reflecting and embodying God’s love, peace and justice – creating the kin-dom of God here on earth – here and now. 

When Jesus taught his students to pray, one of the phrases he encouraged was to pray to God:

“your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When Jesus taught about God’s ways being done on earth, he usually called it the King-om of God. In Jesus’ King-om of God teaching, we get pictures of dynamic and radical faith, hope, and love expressed in private and public life – a thru-line in all we do, wherever we are… 

And Jesus backs this up as he’s talking to the religious leaders of the day – in the gospel of Luke where the Pharisees ask when the “kin-dom of God would come, Jesus replied,

“The coming of the kin-dom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kin-dom of God is in your midst.” “Is among you” – “is within you” (other translations) 

Luke 17:20 – 21

Late Congressman John Lewis echoed this sentiment by saying,

what if the beloved community were already a reality, the true reality, and we simply have to embody it until everyone else can see and experience it?”

It’s the spirit of this question that I want to invite our panel into conversation around …to put some legs on this really big phrase ‘Beloved Community’ – some tangible pictures of how this plays out in our real lives.

Please welcome – Cliff Chuang, Maleka Donaldson, Kate Henderson.

Panel prompt #1:

  • If the kin-dom of God – the Beloved Community is indeed in our midst – and is within you – how do the values of belonging, listening, inclusion, justice –  inform/inspire/empower YOU and the life you lead?

Panel prompt #2:

For Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, Beloved Community was a deep prayer, one that safeguarded them from resignation, isolation and disconnection.

2) I can imagine that in the areas of education and public health everything is not running perfectly smooth, or as you would dream it to be – and maybe that’s part of why you went into these areas of work… but after working in these fields for years I also can imagine it gets hard to stay in it…

What keeps you going? What keeps resignation at bay (both internally and in reality)? How do you not give up?

Question for online congregation:  How about you all? I think we are all a part of creating the Beloved Community whether in our households, relationships, neighborhoods or work… What keeps you going?  Where are you experiencing beloved community in your life?

How To Have An Enemy (And What To Do Next!)

Born in the 70s, part of the soundtrack to my childhood was the album Free to Be You and Me. 

It taught us boys and girls can grow up to be anything they want, have any jobs they want. It told us boys can love dolls and everyone can use a good cry now and then. 

It was mostly awesome!

But one of its songs captures a way I wasn’t as prepared for the real world as I might have been. It was the tune “Sisters and Brothers.”

Sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters

Ain’t we, everyone

Brothers and sisters, sisters and brothers, 

Every father’s daughter, every mother’s son.

Yeah, groovy tune. 

It was the early 70’s, it didn’t have today’s more fluid gender identity language or anything but the message was, we’re all in this together. One big human family. Let’s all love each other. Let’s all get along.

Great message, great song.

But how I heard it as a kid was:

if we can all share, if we can all be nice to each other, we will all get along, all the time. 

I picked this up in a lot of other places, it wasn’t just the song. But all this didn’t prepare me for a world where a lot of the time, nobody’s very nice. 

And what do we do when they aren’t? 

In my early childhood, a guy who worked at one of my parent’s part time jobs lived in our basement for a while, and he had an aggressive dog that attacked me. Being nice to that dog, being nice to its owner didn’t help me feel safe.

A little later, I remember when a neighborhood bully, a mean and tough older kid took one of my brother’s jackets from him and pushed him down a hill. My family’s response to that didn’t seem adequate to me and it left my brother vulnerable. I didn’t think being nice was working there.

Later, in my teenage years, I got opened to just how dangerous the bigger world was. Learning about my grandparent’s war – World War II – was devastating. I vividly remember the first time I heard a survivor of the Holocaust speak. Sacred, important memory. Still true. This afternoon, I’ll represent our church and our faith as an ally at Boston’s annual remembrance of the Shoah, the destruction, which is what Jews mostly call the Nazi attempt to exterminate their people. I remember learning about the terrifying violence our species is capable of.

And then I remember learning about the US firebombing and atom bombing of Japan. It was taught to me like it was a necessary evil, but when I first heard a Japanese survivor speak, that logic didn’t sit right with me. I remember thinking:

my country is also capable of the most terrifying violence.

I remember learning that I lived in a town, a small outer suburb of Boston, that had zoning laws that were intentionally designed to keep poor people out of the community, and really also to keep it white. And this is totally legal. Still is. It’s something our GBIO Housing justice campaign is trying to address in 2023. My own town was the enemy of goodness this way. Evil so close to home.

And then, as an older teen, I had relationships and experiences where I realized I was capable of evil too. There are many enemies in the world, some far, some quite near, and some even within me and my capacity to hurt others. 

“Sister and brother”, “we are the world” aspirations hadn’t prepared me for a world of evil. And niceness and sharing didn’t seem equipped to handle a world of enemies. 

Sometimes niceness made it worse, for everyone – the person who got hurt, and even for the enemy too.

In a world of conflict, in a world of evil, in a world full of enemies – without and within – the good news of Jesus is unique and clear and absolutely difficult. 

The call is to love our enemies. Hard to understand, harder to do, but absolutely central to our hope of salvation. 

Our pastors decided it was time to go here together. We won’t say everything there is to say, but we’re teeing up five weeks of loving our enemies. 

Here’s the teaching of Jesus that is most famous on this. 

Matthew 5:43-48 (Common English Bible)

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.

44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you

45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?

47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?

48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Once Jesus said that all the scriptures could be summed up like this.

Love God with all your being. And love your neighbor as yourself.

A lawyer, who didn’t like the simplicity of all that, asked:

But Jesus, who is my neighbor?

Lawyers. Geesh. 

And Jesus told him a story that made it clear. Your neighbor is everyone. Your neighbor is even your enemy.

And now Jesus says:

love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.

And so we, or at least the lawyers among us, might ask:

But Jesus, who is my enemy?

So this is today’s sermon.

  • Who are not our enemies?
  • Who are our enemies?
  • And what is one way that love looks like? Not the only way, not the last way, but maybe the first way.

So who are not our enemies?

This is the briefest part. The people who hold us accountable when we need to grow or change are not our enemies. 

Let me tell you an embarrassing story I’ve never shared with you before. 

I got a college education at a school that was majority Jewish. They were interesting, mostly positive years of my life. I met my future spouse Grace there, that has worked out astoundingly well, for me at least. (Mixed bag for her.) Really sexy meet-up story, we were assigned to lead a Bible study together in our tiny little Christian student group. 

The sparks didn’t fly at first, but the friendship did, and sparks followed eventually. 

Anyway, though, in that tiny little Christian student group on a majority Jewish campus, founded in 1948, just after the attempted extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians. In this context, one year our leadership team wanted to put pamphlets for our Christian student group in every single student’s mailbox, to flier the whole school. And we, or at least I, was so offended when the administration did not grant us that permission. Like how dare they crack down on us like this? 

I thought that the school leadership was discriminating against us, the Christian minority, and that made them the enemy.

I thought it was my first experience of persecution for my faith. When actually it was my first experience of a persecution complex. 

Yeah, inventing enemies when they weren’t there. This can happen with religious people unfortunately. When other people don’t go along with our bad behavior, we can think they’re our enemies when really they’re just being reasonable. Or maybe they are providing a boundary for our bad behavior or accountability or consequence for our need to grow. 

So this is not what it means to have an enemy. This is the world inviting us to change. 

But who are our enemies?

I want to acknowledge that the naivete I grew up with around enemies is not everyone’s story. Some of you know exactly who your enemies are. 

I live with a woman of color as my partner. 

She knows in her body (in a way I don’t) what it’s like for people to stand against her, to seek to diminish her and do her harm. Some of us have had lived experience where our enemies have made themselves quite clear. 

It’s easy to wonder if you have enemies when your social location is privileged or protected, where you don’t experience people out to do you harm very often. 

But even for those of us who have clarity about who in the world is not our for our good, we too may have been raised with the obligation to be nice to everyone, not to name someone as an enemy, which seems aggressive maybe. Or we may know who are enemies are but have no idea what to do about them.

In preparation for this series, I thought about some of my evolution over the past 35 years that I’ve been following Jesus. And I’ve also read the marvelous book by Melissa Floreer-Bixler, How to Have an Enemy.

Here are just a few things I learned about who our enemies are and why it’s helpful to name them as such.

Our enemies are the people and the systems who harm us. 

I am a victim, a survivor, of childhood sexual abuse. I did a lot of work on this in my late teens, my 20’s, my 30’s, but it took until the #metoo movement (which to be clear, was not at all about me), but it took until that movement, which started in my 40’s, for me to really find or let out the anger in me to the one who did me harm. 

An abuser is your enemy, worthy of your protective, righteous anger. And naming them as your enemy doesn’t shut down healing, it allows for the kind of clarity of what’s going on that can be part of enabling healing.

Let me go somewhere else with this that is for most of us very different and also kind of awkward but I think important. 

Those of us who are parents, we mostly do the best we can. But we know if we’re honest that we have all kinds of limits.

Same with our parents. Our folks mostly did the best they could. But we can only pass on what we have. We can only give what we’ve been given. And so at one point in adulthood, I came to realize that sometimes my parents have been my enemy. Not willfully, intentionally, but in the places they have been a source of harm, there is at least an enemy dynamic in that relationship. 

Now it’s awkward to call your parents your enemy. And maybe for most of us, that’s not a thing we ever need to say to our parents. Maybe that’s not what love looks like. But again, naming this enemy dynamic when we find it, even in our most intimate relationships, can be clarifying. It can just be truthful, and the truth Jesus says, will set us free. 

Enemies aren’t just personal, though, and they aren’t just about us. 

Our enemies are the people and the systems who harm who and what we love. 

Cancel my favorite TV show or my favorite candy bar and watch out, you’re my enemy. I kid, but seriously, experiencing the enemy nature harming who and what we love is a growth in love and solidarity.

There’s been no war on straight white Christian men in my life, where I live. Maybe some people have alleged that, but I don’t see any harm where I live to the bodies or the rights of my social identities. 

But I have over my adult life come to start to experience as enemies the people and the system who harm women, who harm people of color, who harm queer people. And it’s not because I suddenly got more altruistic or protective. It’s because of my love for the people in my life, in my inner circles, with these social identities that have often been under attack. It’s a growth in love and maturity to experience other people’s enemies as mine. 

And this is not about demonizing or dehumanizing these people and systems, it’s again just about the clarity and freedom of telling the truth. Do harm to who and what I love, and you are my enemy. 

Sometimes, we can even embrace Jesus’ call to love God enough that we can experience the people and systems who harm what God loves as our enemy.

The system Jesus most called an enemy was this force he called Mammon – the existential, spiritual impact of money, of wealth. Jesus was colonized, oppressed, crucified by the Roman empire. He knew what it meant to have enemies. But he spoke his harshest words really for the dehumanizing power of wealth, what he personified as Mammon. He says you can only have one god, you can only love one god. And then he says, so you can’t love God and wealth, or mammon.

Saying two things at once. Money, wealth, is a god. We fear it, we long for it, we think it protects us and makes us secure. It has a lot of power in the world. It’s a god. But it’s also an enemy. Chasing it, longing for it, hoarding it does harm to our souls and tends to make us neglect or do harm to others. So wealth is an enemy. 

Even parts of ourselves harm what God loves. We have parts of ourselves that are resentful, even hateful, that diminish our loves for others and so harm what God loves. We have parts of ourselves that crave convenience and are hasty and don’t do what our indigenous siblings exhort us to do, which is think of everything with the impact on seven generations to come, so we harm the earth and we harm our descendants, making us the enemy of what God loves.

We have parts of ourselves that are compulsive, that draw us toward addiction, that resist our own belovedness and belonging, and so we lessen our own joy and freedom, harming ourselves, whom God loves so much. So we are our own enemies too. 

I think this clarity about the enemies that abound is important. And it’s important because it invites us to wonder: how do we engage? What do we do with all these enemies? What does love look like? (And what does it not look like?)

Well, we’ve got four more weeks, so let’s just start. Not the final word on how we love our enemies, but maybe the first word, a place to start. 

Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who harass you. Pray for them. And when we pray for our enemies, there are two ways we can pray. We can curse them, and we can bless them. I actually strongly recommend we do both. Yeah, really, cursing and blessing prayers.

The Bible’s prayer book, called the psalms, actually mostly curses our enemies. 

Here’s a sample:

Psalm 104: 33-35 (Common English Bible)

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

    I will sing praises to my God while I’m still alive.

34 Let my praise be pleasing to him;

    I’m rejoicing in the Lord!

35 Let sinners be wiped clean from the earth;

    let the wicked be no more.

But let my whole being bless the Lord!

    Praise the Lord!

Not subtle. Wipe them out, God. That their bodies and even the memory of them be no more. 

There’s plenty more where this comes from. In the psalms of lament, here are some of the things we get to pray for our enemies:

for a rain of sulfur upon them (old school, Psalm 11),

for blindness and genital pain (vivid, Psalm 69),

for the amputation of their tongues and lips (super specific, Psalm 12),

even that

their clothing be replaced by “shame and dishonor”,

whatever that fashion line looks like (Psalm 109). 

So have it, friends. Ask God to do all kinds of nasty stuff to your enemies. I’m serious.

Why? Well, I can think of at least three good reasons.

  1. This gives us a moral clarity about the evil in the people and systems we experience doing harm. We tell the truth to ourselves and to God that this is not OK, that this has got to change.
  2. It’s empowering to us. We will often never get power over our enemies in this life. And even if we do, Jesus wants us to use that for their good, not their harm. We’ll get back to this. So to pray this way helps us express the terror, the danger, and the trauma our enemies evoke. It helps us not shove this down but give it voice. Sometimes, anger is better than sadness, because it goes somewhere other than staying inside and festering.
  3. We’re giving this voice to God. We’re not cursing our enemies to their face. We’re not enacting vengeance. We are placing our real and understandable desire for vengeance in God’s hands, not ours. And by doing this, we are getting it out of ourselves and we are practicing faith in a holy and just God to handle things better than we could. 

So the cursing prayers have a purpose. 

But hopefully, they’re not where we step. Because Jesus also wants us to dare to pray prayers of blessing as well. 

He’s like:

send good your enemies’ way.

It’s easy to love those who love us. It is holy, it is complete, it is God-like to love those who do not love us. And we can do this in our prayers. 

We can say,

Loving God, please do good to my enemy. Help them be satisfied with you God, and what you have given them, that they may be healed. 

So whether I’m praying for an enemy out there in the world – a person or a system doing harm do people I love, or whether I’m praying for an enemy close at hand (like a person in my life who claims to love me but has a side of them that does me harm) or whether I’m even praying for a part of myself that keeps doing me or someone else harm, I can pray curses. 

I can say,

God, destroy this person or this part of this person. Let death-dealing weather or genital pain or dishonorable fashion mess up their game for a while. 

And then I can also pray blessing. Like,

loving God, help this person know you as a kind and generous parent. Help them find satisfaction and healing in you. May they be grounded, secure, beloved, healed enough to stop doing harm any more. 

And this is actually where our cursing and our blessing can become united in love. 

The book I mentioned, How to Have an Enemy, retells a story from the talmud where a second century rabbi was facing criminals in his community’s neighborhood, wreaking all kinds of havoc. This famous rabbi was drawn to the cursing psalm we read today. 

But instead of praying that “the wicked be no more”, he prayed that these criminals should repent, and there will be no more wicked people in the neighborhood.

He prayed for them and they repented. They stopped the thieving and violence, and so indeed wickedness was no more.

Jesus’ call to love our enemies is not a call to be nice. It is not a call to fantasy, to pretend that the world as it is lives in harmony, sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters. 

Jesus’ call to love our enemies is a call first to notice them. They are real among us and within us. And it is a call to long for, to pray for, and to participate in making a world where our enemies are no more, where all people and all systems acknowledge and respect the beloved belonging of all humans and all creation.

Nothing less than this is the will of God for us all in Christ.

More next week. For now, let’s pray.

From Dust to Dust

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 

16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again!

17 I thought to myself, God will judge both righteous and wicked people, because there’s a time for every matter and every deed.

18 I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals

19 because human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals because everything is pointless.

20 All go to the same place:

    all are from the dust;

    all return to the dust.

21 Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth?

22 So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future?

Let me pray for us. Great Divine Love, you have called us here to this moment. Something woke us up this morning and drew us near to this place we marked as set apart and sacred, not because the place is special but because we decided together that we will seek you together. And so we seek you now in word and thought, no matter what we may carry with us in our hearts coming in here, whether in despair or in hope, we seek your love, your truth. Humble us, that we may get out of the way of ourselves, and see you, who tell us that we are beloveds. Help us to hear that deeply in our souls as we seek your word. Amen.

I remember when I became a freshman in college, I felt that I had finally stepped into the real world. Here is the world, not in the small confines of my parent’s house. Not the pathetic life of high school drama, not in the small towns which I grew up most of my life, from a small town in Georgia two hours south of Atlanta where I went to elementary school, from a small town in Wichita, Kansas, literally in the middle of nowhere where I went to middle school, or even Fresno, CA which is endearingly(?) called the armpit of California where I finished high school. I was finally in the big real world, UCLA. There was a mix of pride, of having made it there, but also great insecurity, I don’t know what I’m doing here. 

I remember becoming aware of the public opinion or persona of Christianity, which growing up as a pastor’s kid, it’s the water we swam in. But here at a “secular” university, it was something different.

There was one day, on Bruinwalk, which is the main walkway everyone took from the dorms to get to classes, often littered with flyers for student organizations, clubs, and fraternity/sorority parties, there was a man set up on Bruinwalk with a microphone and a speaker next to him. You could hear this amplified preaching/chastising,

“If you don’t repent, and admit that you are a sinner, you will face the judgment of God in hell.”

I remember hearing the words, thinking,

“I know what he’s talking about, but gosh why is he yelling it on a speakerphone like this.”

And I felt embarrassed for him, for Christianity. I didn’t want others to know that I was Christian as to not be associated with him. 

The worst part about it though was, he had this other mic set up actually, a few feet down from him, him on top of the hill, where students gathered around, that could apparently respond on the microphone. And he’d take questions or comments, or so it seemed. I saw students, eager, smart-looking, well spoken, much like students I sat with in my political theory classes, who I respected with awe at their comments in class, respond to him with great logic. And when they did, at some point, he had a button to shut off the mic of his opponents.

He was controlling the mic, turning it on or off, which then obviously frustrated his “listeners,” It seemed so sick to me. I wondered, how is this helpful in evangelizing the love of God to people? I think that’s when I started to get a bit jaded, not about God, but about Christianity and Christians. 

That’s what I appreciate about a text like today’s, Ecclesiastes, a book that many have debated over whether it should even be in the Bible or not. Those books are my favorite! It’s a book of impassioned contradictions. I love a good pessimist or a jaded realist.

I am not one. I am a hopeful optimistic romantic of them all. But an actual realist to go up against, really ruffles my feathers. And that’s what the Ecclesiastes has to offer I think to the hopeful romantics of Easter-loving Christians in this season of Lent. Because before we get to Easter, we’ve got SIX WEEKS of Lent, where this week is about dust. 

all are from the dust;

all return to the dust.

Ecclesiastes is like a good satire or dystopian story, like Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parasite, Squid Game, or the Walking Dead. It makes you think and question, well, what is the most important thing about life? And the thing is, when you really start to ask that question about life, it quickly does force you to reckon with the opposite of life–death.

In the Pulitzer prize winning book titled “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, it says that

“the prospect of death… wonderfully concentrates the mind…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for (hu)man.” 

Death is a reality check. I know this conceptually, and I also know that some of you have personally experienced the “wonderful” concentrating of mind at the prospect of death of loved ones or scary health diagnosis. When one of my close friend’s dad passed away about a year ago, when it’s not just a hypothetical situation in a screen or a book, it was sobering to see that it really does both blur everything that’s unnecessary and focuses on the realest things about life. I remember her sharing with us in an update email, as she was approaching her dad’s last days, she said,

It is uncomfortable to talk about death, especially when we’re young, showing off great memories on social media, and just living it up.  And we should live it up!” Ecclesiastes 5 says that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them.” But Ecclesiastes 7 also says: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” This is a wake up call for me.  I don’t know exactly how my life will change from this moment on, but at 42, I’m about halfway through life and it is a good lesson in wisdom to know my days are numbered, that life really is short, and that everyone I love will either go to my funeral or I will go to theirs.  If I don’t learn and change, then my dad’s painful death is in vain.”

As much as I felt embarrassed by the Christian guy on the mic on Bruinwalk, I do think the message of Christianity does have this wake up call kind of warning to many of us who drift through our days and weeks, with great aspirations and guilty pleasures, even with meaning and purpose, but there is this reality check like Ecclesiastes chapter 1 offers,

“meaningless meaningless. All is meaningless.” 

I personally wouldn’t lead with that message, optimistic personality and all, and for the record, biblically, that’s not where it starts. Yes I am going to take a hopeful romantic break before I get back to death, dust, and meaninglessness. The Bible begins with the Creation which is called good, before “the Fall.” Before Original Sin, there was Original Good. Human beings, made in the image of God, to which God called good. How come we don’t talk about that as much when we’re evangelizing?

Okay, back to realism. There is something very compelling and sobering about the reality check of the Christian message. That there is sin. There is “evil,” however we define it. There are limits to humans. That there is suffering and death. I actually think the reason why the Christian message in one sense, is provocative yet widely received in many situations is because it speaks to the stark and dark reality of our world. Yelling into a mic, “You are a sinner” is powerful because we are so entangled in so much, daunting, powerless-evoking, sin and darkness in our world. Coming to terms with that is so freeing! You’re not invincible. You don’t have to be a hero or make something of yourself. 

The “heroism” concept is human nature though. Becker says, in The Denial of Death,

“One of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of “narcissism.”

As Erich Fromm has so well reminded us, this idea is one of Freud’s great and lasting contributions. Freud discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus: we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. If we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all. As Aristotle somewhere put it:

luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow…

This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physicochemical, inner  organic recesses he feels immortal (and by he, he means, human beings, all humans, outdated, you get the point). He goes on to talk about the nature of children, their unashamed demands for their wants and needs, which I will tell you that my two year old exerts all his tiny might and power to get my attention, relentlessly and impossible to ignore. 

This week I attended our Ash Wednesday service that our Worship and Arts Director Matt Henderson and some members of our community beautifully and thoughtfully curated. At some point, Jenae, who’s a therapist and a yoga instructor, invited us to grab a handful of dirt in our hands and led us through some prompts.

The dirt? It was dirty. As I was holding it in my hand I was reflecting on how much anxiety it brings me when my little girl wants to play with kinetic sand. I hate Kinetic sand. There’s nothing kinetic about it. It gets everywhere. And I don’t know what life trauma or trigger it touches upon but it makes me completely on edge to let her play with sand.

So when Jenae asked us to feel the dirt in our fingers, all I could think was how gross and dirty it was. And then at some point I realized, oh right, the invitation to Ash Wednesday and Lent is that,

“From dust we all come and to dust we return.”

Dang it, that’s going to be me someday, after I die and decompose. It was humbling. And yet, it was also freeing. Like all the ways I worried about things, really, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing mattered. Nothing mattered that much. Or as my husband puts it,

“nobody cares about you as much as you care about you.”

(He’s that realist I like in my life) Which gets at that both heroism of my own self worth and the macro-perspective of the reality that I am just dust. 

There’s an equalizer here for all. The text does this with humans and animals,

human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals”

it says. Which again, is humbling from our human centeredness and human ego. Death is the leveler for all. Our Lent Devotional guide juxtaposes Scripture with the voice of an indigenous leader, Randy Woodley a Cherokee descendant, and he puts it like this:

“In the western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings with, of course, the human being on top – the pinnacle of evolution, the darling creation – and the plant at the bottom. But in native way of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brother of creation.”” 

I love that our church seeks wisdom from both the scriptures and Christian leaders, which in seminary we called them special revelation, as well as from general revelation, which is in our lived experiences, wisdom of non-codified indigenous voices, which as a woman of color, it is not only in the scholarism of feminist thought that is truth and life for me, but in the daily lived experiences of “uneducated” immigrant, working class, wisdom of a mom, like my own mother that sometimes strikes the greatest chord in me, rather than the smarts of things I heard in the halls of a university. 

The Christian wisdom of this liturgical invitation, of six weeks of this, Lent, where we think about our mortality, humility, death, and suffering, before we get to Easter, I think is brilliant–and hard. Lent is hard for me. I much rather do Advent and Christmas, expecting and celebrating. Not this dreadful thing. 

But if death and suffering is a leveler, I also have experienced it as deepening and expansion of our life as a container. Our text today says,

I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals.”

And to this, in our Lent Guide, Steve writes in the Point of Interest section,

“I have no idea what the author of this text means by God testing us through our mortality… One of those ideas is that maybe God is testing us, or helping us grow, through these challenges. Maybe. But not necessarily, and definitely not always.”

Is God testing us with suffering?

Well, Ecclesiastes, though it is a part of the Holy Bible, says,

“I also thought…”

which is to say, it’s merely an opinion. So it sounds like the writer thinks they are a test from God. Steve says,

“maybe, but not necessarily, and definitely not always.”

I agree with that. Not always, a test. But if you’ve experienced any kind of suffering in your life, it sure is, maybe not a test, but it pushes you. 

How low can you go? How deep is the depths of despair? And when you have seen rock bottom, as they say, you can only go up, and the way up is long. Which means, since you’re so so low, since your suffering is so great, your rise from it can only be so so high. Jesus said this once before a sinful woman that I felt deeply in my soul.

“Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

When I heard this, I thought,

“oh you have no idea how much I love you Jesus.” 

You know this in the simplest examples of when you’re sick, and you’re congested and coughing from your chest, it’s hard to eat, it’s hard to sleep, but when you get better, your nose is amazing in its capability to take in breath that is life! You can smell and taste food that is amazing. Your cold has been given away and your love for life has been renewed. You thank the Lord for each breath you take without coughing! 

And many of you know this in more complex ways. If you’ve been through bankruptcy, to have a credit line. If you’ve been through a breakup, to find love again. If you’ve experienced homelessness, to just have a bed and a table to sit and eat at. If your child’s been sick or struggling through an especially difficult time, to see them come through on the other side, gratitude upon gratitude upon gratitude is something that no sermon can teach you. 

So let us not deny death, or our mortality, or even suffering, because for one thing, it’s a sure and absolute final destiny for us all, but also because at the face of the realities of it all, our heart expands, somehow, I don’t know how, with great hope, greater joy, and greater sense of gratitude at life. 

May this Lenten season take you through this annoying knowledgment to Easter when we can genuinely celebrate, not at the denial of death with resurrection, but with clear and well awareness of death and life, both. Let me pray for us. 

Our Suffering Christ, God who went through death just like us, take us through our days. In the most mundane of days, even as it feels like just groundhog day, day in day out… would you walk with us, showing us the beautiful and brokenness of this world. Help us through the darkest of our times, and lift our chins up to see the vistas from the mountaintop. Reveal to us there through it all, you are there, with us, even in the nothingness and meaningless of it all, you hold us. Would you help us to there find somehow uninhibited joy, pure joy, we ask you, would you grant us that we pray. Amen.