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. 

Proleptic: The Significance Of Our Desires

I meet with a retired priest about once a month: a confidant and guide who listens to me, asks me questions, shares perspective, and prays for me. It’s a conversation called spiritual direction. 

We open our times with silence and a time of prayer, before I begin. And one of the times we met last year, during the silence, what came to mind was that I was so unhappy with the state of two important relationships in my life. 

I hadn’t expected to talk about these folks. I hadn’t even realized they were on my mind. But when we sat in silence, this is what came, so I told my spiritual director about these people and about my disappointment with where things were in our friendships. 

And as I told him about this, I found myself tearing up. I was noticing how much this mattered to me. But I also found myself saying that I not only didn’t know what to do next, but truthfully, I didn’t want to do anything at all. I wanted better relationships, but I was tired of trying, so where did that leave me? 

And my partner in this conversation just listened, asked me a few questions, let me know that he could see how important this was to me, and reminded me of a couple other burdens I’d shared with him before, let me know that he could see I was carrying a lot and he felt with me in this. 

It’s so good when someone listens to you like this, isn’t it? What a gift to receive, what a gift to give to listen like this. It’s part of what love looks like, this careful listening.

Yeah, so then my spiritual director asked me:

Could I share a thought with you? 

And I told him:

Of course, please do. 

And he told me,

I think your desires here are proleptic. 

And I was like:

You’re going to have to remind me what that word means.

And he did, and it has made a big difference to me.

A difference I would like to share with you. 

More in a minute, but I’ll say for now that prolepsis has to do with the things we really want.

Maybe not necessarily the little wants, but definitely the big wants underneath those. 

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t necessarily taught that what I want matters very much, at least not to God.

But if that’s the case, it’s funny that Jesus asks people about what they want, even when you’d think it would be obvious.

There’s the time when Jesus is first taking on students as a rabbi, and two young people ask if they can join him. We read:

John 1:38a (Common English Bible)

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” 

Jesus doesn’t start off with a syllabus or an interview or an introduction. Actually, he doesn’t start his relationship as a rabbi by saying anything at all. He listens. And what he’s listening for is what they are looking for. He wants to know what they want.

Another time, maybe a couple years later, Jesus is leaving the town of Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem. Tensions were rising around Jesus’ work. He had more fans and followers than ever before, but also more powerful detractors. All the good, bad, and ugly around his work the past couple of years seemed to be coming to a head. This is an important time for Jesus, a stressful time, and as he’s leaving Jericho, amidst a crowd of people, a beggar who’s blind keeps calling out, trying to get Jesus’ attention.

It’s a hassle, an inconvenience, or it would be to me. But to Jesus, it’s a human being, a brother, a fellow image bearer of God. So Jesus stops and calls him over. And he says this. 

Mark 10:51 (Common English Bible)

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Maybe it seemed obvious to everyone else. This is a beggar, of course he wants alms, he wants money. And he might expect that Jesus would give some. He’s a religious leader of sorts, with a reputation to uphold. 

But Jesus doesn’t assume anything, and as usual, he doesn’t speak first, he listens. He wants to know what we want. 

And the man who was begging goes bigger than maybe anyone was expecting. He says:

Rabbi, I want to see. 

And Jesus says:

OK, go, your faith has healed you.

And the gospels tell us he regained his sight and joined Jesus’ students following him to Jerusalem.

What a story, very dramatic, but again, it starts with Jesus listening for what we want. 

Why is this? 

Why does Jesus care what we want?

I think one, he’s a good listener. And what we want is important to us, so a good listener will want to know.

I think Jesus also probably knows that we don’t always know what we want, or at least we don’t pay attention to it.

This was the case for me when I went to meet with my spiritual director. I had these griefs and these hopes regarding a couple longtime, important relationships in my life. But for a number of reasons, I’d stopped noticing how much this mattered to me, until in the silence before a very good listener, and I think likely with the prompting of God’s spirit too, the want reemerged for me to pay attention to. 

This happened to me last fall in a more public way, in my work here as a pastor. I was engaged with our church Board in some planning. We’d been aware of a few financial needs for the church, which is why going into this winter, we were praying for and asking people and households to consider or reconsider giving regularly. Thank you again so much for those of you who sustain this community with your giving. 

We were also looking at a couple of old, delayed maintenance issues on our property that if we didn’t take care of in the next couple of years, would become more of a problem, and wondering how to pay for that. 

And it seemed like maybe we should try to raise a little bit of extra money this year, our church’s 25th anniversary year. So I came to the Board with a plan for a very modest sized fundraising campaign. But later, when I talked to one of our Board members, they said to me:

Steve, you know what you’re doing is fine, but why is it so small? It’s not really inspiring to me at all. Have you forgotten about what you really want? 

And he reminded me about some bigger plans and hopes we’d talked about in our Board for the church, plans and hopes that were important to me, had become important to this Board member. 

And I realized, one, I hadn’t prayed about this area of the church recently at all. I was responding to my fear that we wouldn’t have enough money to take care of the church property, and just urgently putting a plan together. So I decided to take a few days to pray about this again.

And then two, when I prayed, I felt like the Spirit of God came to me as a kinder, gentler version of that board member. I felt invited by God to consider this question of Jesus:

  • What is it that you’re looking for?
  • What do you want me to do for you?
  • What do you want?

And as I prayed, I remembered what that Board member was reminding me of, that for years, I’d wanted the church to be freed of our debts and fully released to powerful generosity around all our mission and vision. 

See, when we first acquired this building back in 2004, it was through a powerful, two year period of immense generosity from the congregation at the time. A young congregation, several hundred people in their 20s and 30s, had raised almost four million dollars in a very short amount of time to purchase this property. There were a lot of stories of great financial provision, and enthusiastic and joyful giving. 

And so here we are, in a property that has been a huge gift to this church, to a public school we share it with, and to the community at large. 

But we also took on a fair bit of debt to make that happen, just as any of us do if we’re able to buy a home. But unlike a home mortgage, commercial debt is generally a less friendly thing to carry. So our church has had a great run these past 18 years since then, but we’ve had to divert a fair bit of funding toward debt payments as well.

And I’ve dreamed of the day when we’d be free from all that debt and be able to do some special things together with all that freedom. 

When I came back with that desire I felt encouraged to pay attention to again, our Board members agreed and it seemed like this 25th anniversary would be a great time to see this dream into being. 

See, I’ve said that our desires matter a lot to us. They are by definition important to us, so they’ll be important to any good listener too, God included. 

I’ve also pointed out that it’s easy to forget what we really want, or to stop paying attention to it, even to bury it, especially if it doesn’t come true right away.

But three, I believe that our desires always tell a story we need to pay attention to, and sometimes that story is the truth. 

The community group I lead that meets on Saturday mornings studies the Bible together every week, and we studied part of the book of Hebrew poetry called Ecclesiastes this fall. It’s mostly pretty gloomy, and it was depressing enough that we basically voted to move on after 3 or 4 weeks.

But before we did, we read the chapter with this beautiful line in it. 

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (Common English Bible)

11 God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.

God-sized eternity in our hearts, but a lack of God-sized knowledge or abilities. The glory and the humility of being a human, this gives a sense of that. 

In our center, call it heart, gut, mind, spirit, whatever, in our core desires, is a longing for what’s good, what’s true, what’s beautiful. 

Ultimately, that’s a longing for God, I think. The ancient North African theologian Augustine thought so. He famously wrote, 

You, God, have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.

But in saying we long for God, it’s not just God in a narrow sense, like longing for prayer and worship. Ecclesiastes immediately talks about the gift of great meals and enjoying the fruit of hard work. I think this verse speaks to the desire we have for things we could call lasting, eternal, maybe spiritual. 

Sometimes our desires tell the truth, not just about what we want, but about what is yet to come, about what God is longing to bring into being as well.

This is what my spiritual director meant when he told me he thought my longings were proleptic. 

Prolepsis is the representation of a thing before it’s actually so. It can be a figure of speech, like when you see a doomed person and you say: he was a dead man when he entered. People on their way to their execution can be called “dead men walking.” That’s a proleptic figure of speech. The future represented as true in the present.

But prolepsis isn’t just a figure of speech. It’s any time we treat the future as if it’s real, like it’s already on the way to happening. 

So maybe, just maybe, our desires are also important because they’re a window into future possibilities God wants us to see or hope for.

Let me give you two places where we think this way, both of which have their strengths and their problems.

One is in vision and goal setting, like in business or organizational planning. Often when organizations think about their future, they listen to the desires people have for what that future will be like. And they try to translate those desires into words and pictures people agree upon and find inspiring. And then they treat those desires as real and try to make them happen.

Another place is this idea of manifesting. Manifesting is this idea of thinking your dreams into reality. Like: I manifest this new job, or this prosperous life, or I manifest this beautiful, agreeable partner into being. It goes back to an idea in a book that got really popular right after we moved into this building, The Secret, that argues the secret to success is this positive attitude and positive visualization that attracts the good things to us that we imagine. You could trace that back to a 1952 book by the minister Norman Vincent Peale, called The Power of Positive Thinking. That book had a huge impact on Donald Trump’s daddy, and on Trump himself too – who liked the idea that you could get whatever you want if you just want it enough. 

I’m not actually pushing for either of those things at all. I mean goals and planning have important places in life, and positive, optimistic thinking and visualizing can be useful too. In some cases, it probably does make it more likely you get what you want. Optimism and confidence can help. 

Both of these things, though, can be idolatrous. They can exaggerate our abilities, as if we can control the future just by wanting it badly enough. And so they can bring shame to people who don’t get what they want. Like if I get sick or if I have financial problems, is it always or even usually because I just didn’t want to be healthy or wealthy badly enough?

No way!

Prolepsis – treating our desires as important, as worth paying attention to, even as telling us a story that is at least partly true – isn’t magic, and it doesn’t give us control of the future.

A proleptic take on our desires is simply to trust that in our wanting, or maybe sometimes in the deeper want behind the want, there is a truth about the Spirit of God’s moving. There’s truth about possibilities for what both we and God long for. 

So as I talked with my spiritual director that day, and fleshed out what I longed for in these two strained relationships, even though I wasn’t motivated to do anything, I found myself asking my pastor:

So what should I do?

And he was like:

Respectfully, I think that’s the wrong question. You’re not God after all, are you?

He affirmed for me that I’ve come honestly to my lack of motivation. I can’t control the other people. I can’t control the future. I can’t even fully control myself.

Sometimes we’ve tried and tried, and it’s time to stop trying for a little while.

He was like maybe this is an invitation to pay attention, to hold your desires before God, to be open to discernment, to let these desires sit for a while and see what I learn about them – see what’s in the end good and true and beautiful about them, and see maybe if there’s parts I want to let go of as well.

I think this is what the scripture that is most famously negative about our desires has in mind. The prophet Jeremiah says: 

Jeremiah 17:9-10 (Common English Bible)

9 The most cunning heart—

    it’s beyond help.

        Who can figure it out?

10 I, the Lord, probe the heart

    and discern hidden motives,

        to give everyone what they deserve,

        the consequences of their deeds.

Our desires are important. They deserve our attention. They tell stories that are true. But they’re complicated. Not everything we want would we do well to have. I’ve wanted to take things that aren’t mine. I’ve wanted revenge, I’ve wanted to change the past. I’ve wanted a lot of things I’ve been encouraged to let go of. 

Our hearts can be cunning, complicated, full of mixed motives and all. But God probes and sees and discerns. God has a sense of what is really good, true, and beautiful, and what’s worth letting go of for each of us. 

So sometimes not just to not try so hard, but to wait too. 

And to trust that God sees and hears our desires, to get real curious about them, to not just let them go, however likely or unlikely they may seem today, and to humbly see what God and what life can help you learn as you watch and wait.

Eventually, with this kind of humble paying attention before God, you’re likely to know when the time is right for you to do something.

I think this is what the psalms mean, or at least part of what they mean when they say:

Psalm 37:4 (Common English Bible)

Take delight in the Lord,

    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Trust the God that listens to you. Trust the God that inspires everything good and true and beautiful. Trust the God that will cooperate with you in seeing good futures into being. 

And see how your desires change, and how life around you changes over time. 

For me, with the church project, there was an immediate reaction to my re-noticing my desires and holding them before God. Almost immediately, there were opportunities to ask a few people if they share this desire, and some significant funds have already been pledged and given toward Reservoir’s debt free, generous future. We’ll share more about this exciting opportunity for our church in two or three months. For now, though, it’s been amazing for me and for our Board to be fulfilling the desires of this church as we delight and trust in God.

With those key relationships I talked with my spiritual director about, things have been moving more slowly. It’s been nothing like an instant change. Months later, things are mostly still disappointing. 

But I know what I want. And I pray about it. And I’ve had a few opportunities in past months to do something about it with these folks, which have helped a little. And just knowing that God holds my hopes and that I’m doing the little that I have it in me to do, feels good to me. 

Friends, God cares about what you want. 

The Spirit of Jesus is with you, whispering to you in this new year:

What is it that you’re looking for? What do you want me to do for you?

Neither me nor you have the power to see all that junk into being, which frankly, I’m grateful for! We are not gods, and it’s not always time for us to do something.

But over time, our loving God will help us see what’s good, what’s true, what’s beautiful, and what’s possible in our desires, and if we pay attention, we’ll find the moments when it’s our time to do something about it too. 

Pray with me:

God of Creation, God who made and loves us all,

Help us not despise or ignore our desires, but to notice and value them, 

To hold them before you with openness and curiosity, that in time, you and we can make what’s good and true and beautiful possible together. 


Finding God in Nature, and the Power that Brings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love that. 

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis 12:1-3 (Common English Bible)

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

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

3 I will bless those who bless you,

    those who curse you I will curse;

        all the families of the earth

            will be blessed because of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed to be a blessing.

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

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

Genesis 15:5 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d like to talk about that.

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

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

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

All this has happened to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s part of Psalm 65.

Psalm 65:9-13 (Common English Bible)

9 You visit the earth and make it abundant,

    enriching it greatly

        by God’s stream, full of water.

You provide people with grain

    because that is what you’ve decided.

10 Drenching the earth’s furrows,

        leveling its ridges,

    you soften it with rain showers;

        you bless its growth.

11 You crown the year with your goodness;

    your paths overflow with rich food.

12 Even the desert pastures drip with it,

    and the hills are dressed in pure joy.

13 The meadowlands are covered with flocks,

    the valleys decked out in grain—

        they shout for joy;

        they break out in song!

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

how abundant is this world. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The other week I caught a show at the planetarium at the Museum of Science. I hadn’t been there in years, maybe decades. If you’ve never been, Boston’s Museum of Science is just a wonder, famously so for kids but for grownups too. And the Planetarium is where you can see shows about astronomy and what you can see in the night sky and other stuff. It’s really one of our city’s treasures.

I was back there because I’d been invited along with some other clergy of different faiths for a pre-screening of a new Planetarium show that debuts next month, one on religion and science. It tours you about the earth’s cultures and creatures – past, present and future. And it asks many of the big questions that both religion and science pose about the origin and nature and meaning of things, why the earth and the universe are the way we are. 

If you can’t tell, I was spellbound. Highly recommend this show. Anyway, there were a couple of moments in the film that were particularly breathtaking for me.

One was when the show visually represented the changes in human culture and science over the millennia. You visually sweep through time, from the first human use of fire a couple hundred thousand years ago down to today’s lightning speed changes in culture and technology. And you feel both like: woah, what an ancient human story we’re part of but also a kind of awe and delight and fear at how fast that story is changing right now. 

And then there was this other moment, when the film is putting life on earth in the context of the vastness of the universe. And the panoramic view sweeps out from some kind of subatomic particle to a single human’s eye perspective and then on out to a view of the whole earth, and then the earth’s place in our solar system, and our orbital life that sweeps around the sun in the context of the billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and then how many billions or even trillions of galaxies there are in the whole universe.

And Friends, breathtaking doesn’t do it justice. 

How does one think about, feel about, talk about the smallness of our little blue planet in the context of our massive and ever expanding universe? 

What a time to be alive, to begin to be able to peer into the tiniest intricacies of matter and at the same time to gaze out into the inconceivably enormous universe we’re part of. And for our jaws to drop in wonder.

And what a time to be a person of faith in someone or something we call God. An everlasting spiritual being who is creative force behind all this, who is creative, loving presence amidst all this. 

In light of all we are beginning to know about this wildly complex, breathtakingly beautiful, and ever expanding universe, how do we think about and talk about God and worship and pray to God? 

The next few weeks we’re going to explore this question with the help of the work of a friend of mine named Toba Spitzer. Toba is a prominent rabbi in the Jewish religion, a practitioner and a teacher of a form of Judaism called reconstructionist that seeks to help Judaism change and evolve to meet the context and needs of a modern era.

I like Toba for a lot of reasons but one of them is the kindred religious spirit I see in her. Because my calling as a pastor, and Reservoir’s calling as a church, is also within our own tradition, a kind of reconstructionist calling. We want the Christian faith to stay rooted in its origins while also evolving, being large enough, flexible enough to meet the contexts and needs of our times. 

So, from now through Thanksgiving, our Sunday teaching will be drawn from Toba’s work in her new book, God is Here. I highly recommend the book if you want to get it, read it with a friend, with your community group. That’s up to you.

But we’ll draw from a few of Toba’s chapters the next few Sundays in some different Old Testament, non-human metaphors for God. 

This week, I speak on God who is engaged with our universe in its ongoing process of change, God as Becoming. 

Our scripture is from the book of Exodus, chapter three. Moses is called in the wilderness to lead his tribal people out of slavery in Egypt, and he has this encounter with God who names Godself to Moses in a new way, as the ever Becoming one. 

It goes like this:

Exodus 3:11-15 (Common English Bible)

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.

So at first Moses is like:

I can’t do this big thing. I’m not good enough. I stutter. Whatever.

And God says:

I’ll be with you, and I’ll show you that in various ways.

But then Moses is like:

who are you, anyway, God? What will I call you? What is it that I can say about you? 

Deep questions, questions we all ask in a journey of faith, right? What is God like? How do we talk about and talk to this god?

Well, for Moses, and for the first time in the history of the people of Israel, there is divine revelation of this holy, unique name for God. In our English translation, God says,

you all can call me: I am who I am.

And later, that’s shortened just to

“I am.” 

This one word, this one name: Yahweh, or Rabbi Toba tells us Ehyeh, it shows up all over your Bibles but you don’t see it. Every time in your English Old Testament, you see the name Lord for God, but Lord is written with all capital letters, it’s the translators’ attempt to do something with this name that they don’t really know how to translate: Yahweh or Ehyeh. It’s everywhere.

Rabbi Toba tells us you most literally translate this as:

I Will Be that I will Be. Or

“I am Becoming that I am Becoming.”

There’s a lot going on here. 

Moses is learning that this God can not be limited by its name, can’t be boxed in, or controlled. Humans have often named their gods to give them familiarity, the familiarity of a divine being you can appease, and you can hopefully get to do your bidding.

But in Exodus, this God – this God that later on Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all agree is the Most High God, the creator of the universe, the one real divine being – this God can not be named like that, does not want to or need to be appeased, certainly can not be controlled.

No, this God is Being. Or better yet, this God is Becoming. 

If God’s name is Becoming, there’s two subtly different ways we can read this. 

One is that God isn’t changing or growing, but to us, God is ever becoming. Because we are always seeing and learning new things about God. God is so large and beautiful we can never stop learning and seeing more.

The other way to see this is that God is still becoming. Like the universe itself – infinitely large, but at the same time is still expanding. 

If God is like this, then there are aspects of God’s nature or character that never change. The New Testament defines God in a word only three times.

God is Spirit.

God is Truth.

God is Love.

Those things are always true about God. God is always spirit, always true, always loving. And you could add others, like God is just. God is kind. You get the idea. 

But in addition to this constant, everlasting nature, God is also becoming. Because God is in relationship with everyone and everything, God has new experiences, and those experiences affect God and shape the ideas God offers back to us for the future.

For what it’s worth, friends, this is the stuff I study about God in my doctoral program in theology. It’s called process theology, or open and relational theology.

I think that in the 20th century there were three marvelous breakthroughs in Christian theology and experience. They are pentecostal, liberation, and process theology.

Pentecostal theology was born in urban Los Angeles in 1906. People were experiencing the presence and power of God in their emotions and in their bodies, and that seemed to open up power in people’s lives, power for healing, power in their sense of intimate connection with God in prayer, and power to overcome injustice, like to be in interracial communities amidst segregation. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements born of this are the most rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the world. There’s a lot of mess and abuse and unhealth that hangs out in these spaces, but there’s beauty too. Our church, many of us, live in the legacy of this Pentecostal theology and experience. 

Liberation theology was born in the 1950s through the 1970s as colonial global empires and racist segregationist states like the United States started to break up and change. Alongside the movements for freedom in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and within Black America, there were movements of liberation within Christianity that said God is not on the side of oppressive colonists and racists. God is not only interested in eternal life in heaven. God is interested in humane, just conditions in this life, on this earth. And so God cares about the healing and freedom of oppressed people groups. In the US, there was Black theology. In Korea, minjung theology. In Africa and Latin America, this was often called postcolonial or liberation theology. Super-important, that God is in solidarity with those who suffer, and that God cares about justice and wants us to do justice as well. Our church’s vision for Beloved Community is deeply influenced by Liberation theology.

And then lastly Process theology. This was born amongst philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead who were responding to scientific insights like Einstein’s theory of relativity and what became quantum physics, that the only constant in the universe is change and movement, that there are no unchanging substances. You and me and the air around us, and even the chairs you’re sitting on are all collections of matter in relationship. Process theology has the insight consistent with our scripture that God too is always in relationship, that God has experiences that have an affect on God. 

And so God is everlasting and aspects of God like God’s loving nature may never change. But in other ways, God is a creative partner with us all in life. God too is still becoming.

Now at the very least, our view of God keeps widening. Most Biblical authors if pressed would have told you that the earth was the center of creation, and that somewhere above Jerusalem, maybe a few miles up, just over where the birds fly, and over the moon and the stars, God has a throne in the heavens – far enough away that we can’t see it, but close enough that God and any other spiritual beings can see us.

Just about no one thinks that any more. We know that the moon itself is 239,000 miles from earth, and that in the scope of our solar system, that’s still really close. So we know now that the whole “throne of God in the heavens” thing is a metaphor. 

Our view of God has widened. Throne is a metaphor for God’s worth and power. And heavens is a metaphor for God’s omnipresence. God is spirit and God is everywhere. Heaven is just where the good life of God is manifest. 

At minimum, our view of God needs to keep expanding. In our religious traditions and beliefs, we need to be humble about what we know and open to ongoing growth and discovery. This is why religions change. And it’s true for each of us personally too. People change. In our own faith and views, we can be humble and open to discovery, to becoming.

Let me dial this down super practically into two ways of being spiritual I want to commend to you.

The first is called apophatic spirituality. I gave a couple sermons on this a few years back. But here’s the quick version. Kataphatic spirituality means with words – it’s about the things we can affirm about God and know about God with words and images, relating to God through reading holy scripture and verbal prayers and song lyrics and pictures of God in our imaginations. Awesome stuff.

But apophatic spirituality is the necessary, moody cousin to all that. Apophatic means without words. Apophatic says every word and image we use about God may be partly true, but it’s also partly not true. 

God may have a throne, but God doesn’t really have a throne.

God may be like a shepherd, but God’s not really a shepherd. God’s not a person at all, and it’s also rude to people to treat them as if we think like sheep.

God’s always bigger and better than any words or images we put around God. God will be who God will be. God is becoming. So apophatic spirituality encourages mystery and humility and silence.

In our postmodern age of deconstruction, apophatic spirituality affirms some of our impulses. It’s good to be like: I was taught or my parents were taught that God is Father. And that may be true in some ways. But dang, it can end up being limiting, even abusive to get it in our heads that God’s a man. 

So we need to both speak and unspeak that God is Father. God is more than that. God will be who God will be. We can’t contain or control God or put God in a box. God is Becoming. 

That’s apophatic.

The other practice is one Toba commends in her book. It’s a regular practice of radical humility and curiosity about the Becomingness of God and of everyone and everything in the world.

It’s called, “What is this?” The idea is that throughout your day, when you encounter things and experiences both familiar and unfamiliar, you ask with open curiosity, “What is this?”

I read a verse in the Bible about God. Maybe it’s something I think I understand, or maybe it’s something that confuses or troubles me. Either way I ask:

What is this?

And through that question be open to the new becoming of God to me.

Or like Moses before the burning bush, we look at any object in the natural world and ask with curiosity: what is this? And that question can open us up to see the possibilities of becoming in all things.

Like my dog. My family’s trying to train a puppy, and it’s a kind of puppy known for being whip-smart and wonderful but also kind of hard to train. So when my puppy is standing his ground and not wanting to go where I want him to go, I can get frustrated and impatient and yank him around because I’m stronger than him. 

But that’s mean, and it’s bad training too, won’t get us where we want to go. So I ask, “What is this?” What is this dog? And what’s happening here? And I see then: oh, this dog is super smart and has an interesting will of his own. And I’m trying to persuade this dog that I’m wise and trustworthy, that I’m a person worth following. And I’m trying to do that too across this cross-species language gap, which is both challenging and fun. But if we can do this well, if we can learn to communicate to each other, and I can be worthy of his trust and he trusts me, then we are going to have a beautiful relationship. 

Or like my procrastination. I’m working on a big writing project, or more often I’m not working on it. Because it’s long and hard, and so it draws out my insecurities and frustrations and procrastination. And my natural instinct when this happens, as it did for instance on Thursday morning, is to get frustrated with myself and then get restless and give up, which means I don’t get any more writing done and I also feel worse about myself later.

But when I can get curious instead, I can ask:

what is this? What is happening in this experience?

And even ask that question in light of faith and wonder:

God, how do you see what’s happening here? And is there a way that you can help me move forward with more freedom and joy in this? 

And when I tried that Thursday, I remembered that even though I’m 49, I’m still growing. I’m not done yet. And I remembered that God is compassionate for me and patient and not frustrated with where I am today but glad to help me grow.

And I thought:

what if I could be patient with myself too? What if I can just do these one or two parts of the project today rather than worry about the 100 parts I don’t have the energy or insight to do yet? 

And that helped me do the bit I could do on Thursday, which got me one or two steps closer to where I want to go. And maybe more importantly, it was another step in knowing God loves me and is for me, and another step toward self-compassion and owning my own growth too. 

That question of curiosity:

what is this? 

Well, friends, we open our God is Here series with the holiest, most important name of God in the Old Testament, the name that tells us God is Becoming.

God is still experiencing new things in relationship to you and me and all creation. And there is more to God than we yet know or can put to words. There’s a big-eyed, childlike wonder that this Becoming God calls for – a wonder that lets us keep learning, keep growing, keep discovering. God is here. And God will continue to be ever more big and beautiful and loving than we’ve yet seen.


Last month, we got a new puppy. There were people in my household that have been dreaming of this day for a while. Let’s just say I was the last holdout. But here we are. And it’s not clear yet how we’re all going to feel about this in the long run.

But, man, I will give Pepper this. He’s really cute. And he’s pretty fun. He gets us out of the house more. I’ve met more neighbors, more neighbor dogs the past two weeks than the previous two years. And he’s simple. This toothy little, meddlesome creature just wants to chew on things and get outside and be fed. But even more he really just wants to be liked and cuddled with and played with and then he’ll always be happy. 

Yeah, when he’s not sleeping or eating, this dog’s whole world is like: See me. Talk to me. Smile at me. Play with me. 

He’s just hungering for, always ready for connection. 

He’s not alone. 

The other big new thing in our family life this summer is that one of our parents had a major stroke. And we’ve all been waiting and praying as we see what kind of recovery is or isn’t going to be possible.

We still don’t know what the future holds here, but for over two months, my mother in law has been living in institutions, instead of at home. 

And in a lot of ways, the defining question for her, even more than her physical recovery, has also been about connection, wanting to know:

Who sees me? Who’s praying for me? Who remembers me? Who will visit me? And if I’m losing my mobility and my independence, what will ensure that I am not alone? 

As we age, whether we’re particularly introverted or extroverted, our hunger to not lose relationship and attention and touch, our needs to remain connected, become really important. 

The scriptures of our tradition affirm this fundamental need. One of the first things said about people in the whole Bible is this:

Genesis 2:18b

“It’s not good that the human is alone.”

In the creation epic of Genesis, there’s this joyful litany of celebration about the goodness of the whole created order. Again and again, God calls things good. The Hebrew word is tov. 

Sun and moon – tov

Earth and seas – tov

Plant life, animal life – tov.

Birds and fish – tov

The creation of humanity – very tov. So good. An amplification here!

But then, the idea that a human being would live in isolation, not connected to other humans at all, is not tov. 

It’s not good for people to be alone. 

Now here’s what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to get married. Because the creation epic involves Adam and Eve – the man of the ground and the mother of all life – people think about marriage here. Get married, have a family, because it’s not good for humans to be alone.

But not all of us want to get married. And some of us want to, but it doesn’t work out for us. Or we get married, and our partner leaves us or dies. Or the marriage is hard and leaves us lonely more often than not. Or our marriage is pretty great, but we realize that even the best of marriages doesn’t by itself fulfill our needs for relationship, connection, and community. 

Marriage can be wonderful, but it’s not the be all and end all for everyone. You don’t need marriage to not be alone. In fact, you don’t need a romantic partner or a sex life at all either. 

Plenty of people live well and live wonderfully fulfilled lives without sex, without a romantic partner – married or otherwise – either for seasons of life or for all of life.

But none of us live well entirely disconnected. It’s not good for humans to be alone. 

We need connection, and we need circles of different types of connection. 

We need a lot of people to whom we’re very loosely connected, people whose names we’ll mostly never learn – our whole societies, our cultures, our economies in which we find our way. 

And then we need our circles of acquaintances who create networks of belonging for us, the circles of people we work with and live around and share affinity with. These are the people that come and go over time. They’re not intimate, they are loose ties, but they are the networks of giving and receiving that help us understand ourselves and function and matter.

And then we need smaller circles of intimacy, friends and family and partners who don’t just know our names but our stories, people with whom we may have tension and conflict, but where we’ll also experience and offer affection and respect and even love. 

And we even need some sense of connection that stays with us regardless of how other people come and go. We need a fundamental sense that we matter, that we are seen and known and loved, no matter what other people do or say. 

We are profoundly social beings. We are creatures who don’t survive, and certainly don’t thrive, without a lot of connection. 

Today we explore how we can pay attention to and value and engage most wholeheartedly with the people and communities where we offer and receive the most important, richest connection. 

We do this as part of a five week series we call We Are Reservoir. Each week for the next five weeks, we’ll teach scripture and themes related to the five core values that guide our church’s pursuit of vibrant, inclusive, healthy faith. 

These values are connection, freedom, everyone, humility, and action. 

We do a version of this once a year in the fall, so that as a community, we can remember who we are and what we are becoming, and so we can welcome people into belonging and membership in this community and make sure that all of us who want to have opportunities to chip in to the life of this community as well, so we can be a healthy, sustainable church and so all of us who want to can feel connected here. 

Today, as we explore connection, beyond the verse about not being alone, I want to read one other scripture. It’s one of my favorite encounters in the life of Jesus. And it’s a lot of things. But one of the things it is is a story about God making connection and belonging and meaning possible in new ways in a community. 

Here it is.

Luke 19:1-10 (Common English Bible)

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town.

2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich.

3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.

4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.

5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.

10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

Zaccheus lived a life of achievement, of wealth, of privilege, but also of profound alienation and unhappiness. 

Everyone in Jericho knows Zaccheus is rich, but no one likes him. They dislike, despise, resent this man so much that not only is he not welcome in their homes, they’re troubled that Jesus would enter his home. 

Zaccheus is unwelcome in their community because he’s collaborating with their oppressors. He’s the Jewish face of the Roman taxation system that strains their families to pay for the armies and the glory of Rome. 

And not only that, but they are aware that he’s gotten wealthy himself collaborating with Rome at their expense. See, the only way that the empire could maintain a force of local tax collectors would be to turn away at their overcharging to enrich themselves. Corruption and self-serving schemes are part of every violent empire, and Zaccheus is the face of that greed and selfishness to this community as well. 

So Zaccheus is wealthy, but he is not connected. Rejected by his people, and a tool but not a member of the colonizing society, he doesn’t belong. People who interact with Jesus in the gospels are often mentioned with reference to their parents, their children, their friends or spouse, but Zaccheus appears to be solo. He’s alone, which is not tov, not good. 

Whose fault is it? Well, it’s his fault to be sure. He most likely didn’t have to be a tax collector, could have found an excuse to not serve in this role even if called upon, or could have done it while not ripping off his own community so badly.

It’s the fault of a powerful, dysfunctional society as well. Rome encouraged isolation and alienation to keep its economy and power structures moving the way they did.

Maybe it’s even Jericho’s fault to some degree. Who knows? I’ve always wondered if Zaccheus experienced isolation and alienation before his life as a wealthy, corrupt chief tax collector. Maybe he’d always been teased for being so unusually short. Maybe he’d been socially isolated because of other differences or disabilities. 

 Whatever the reason, Zaccheus is hungering for connection that he’s driven out of his life, or perhaps that has been driven from him as well. 

And Jesus initiates connection and care. He sees Zaccheus, who’s simply been trying to see Jesus, and he invites himself over for lunch. 

I’m coming to your house, he says. And as surprised and angry as the rest of the community is, Zaccheus is honored and thrilled.

And it seems like something of the light of God gets in through the cracks in him. Some part of his underlying pain breaks open maybe, and he can own the harm he’s done in his community. And some part of him, in this new circle of connection and care, lights up. A yearning for connection, a yearning for justice and restoration, a sense of agency returns to him. 

And so over the meal, likely with folks eavesdropping outside the windows, he says to Jesus:

I’m going to make things right. I’m going to make things right. And he makes this extravagant beginnings of amends for the harm he’s done.

It’s justice, it’s the right thing, but it’s also a pathway to restoration of community. 

Restoration of wealth to poor, fleeced community members. 

Restoration of justice to angry, embittered neighbors.

The possibility of restoration of social connection and a place in the community for Zaccheus to. 

And so it’s no surprise that Jesus says:

Salvation has come to this house. 

Salvation came to this house. He’s not just talking about eternal membership in God’s family, even if he is talking about that as well. He’s talking about healing, wholeness, restoration for both perpetrators and victims, reintegration into community – everything we can mean when we say this word salvation. 

God has done it. Jesus has done it. Zaccheus has done it. 

Salvation has come – and while salvation comes from God, it’s always a team sport. 

Jesus is the initiator here. He establishes the community of connection and care. 

But Zaccheus was looking for it too – he was hungry, up there in that tree, looking for God.

Connection and care produce a shift in Zaccheus’ consciousness, as care and forgiveness and acceptance and connection always do. Zaccheus is more free, he longs to do right now. Which is good, because connection can be started through care, but it’s only sustained through safe and just practices in community relationships.

Communities don’t work if people don’t do right by one another. So Zaccheus does the good work to partner with God in his own salvation and restoration, which protects his community as well. 

And then at the end it’s amplified, magnified by Jesus when he says: look at this, this man is a real son of Abraham, isn’t he? He’s restoring Zaccheus to community, calling him a good Jew, one who truly belongs among his people. 

After all, Jesus is the human one who came to seek and save the lost. The human one – Son of Man – is an insider lingo kind of title for Jesus but it also means what it sounds like, like he’s the most truly human one who’s ever walked among us. And he looks for people who are disconnected, alienated, lost, and he longs to restore them, as he does here. 

Man, this is a good news story. And it resounds for me in all kinds of ways in our times too, makes me long to keep seeing more of this.

I think of the nearly one in 50 men who are currently incarcerated in this country. They’re like one in five of the world’s incarcerated men. And if you count the formerly incarcerated too, it’s far more.

And these are like the poor versions of Zaccheus. In most cases, they’ve done wrong to somebody in society, they’ve caused disconnection in communities. But more often than not, their criminality was proceeded by all kinds of alienation in their lives, all kinds of ways they’ve been done wrong and severed from healthy community.

And I think of how our society’s systems of so-called justice and punishment isolate and sever people from community, not just while incarcerated but often for many years afterwards. And I long for more cycles of salvation and restoration in this so broken area of this country.

Or in subtler ways, I think of myself.

Middle aged Americans, especially middle aged men in America, often don’t have many friends. And it’s our own fault, right? Putting career and other stuff over time with friends, awkwardness about affection and need, low emotional intelligence sometimes maybe.

But it’s also kind of not our fault too, right? This late capitalist culture has its demands and expectations and norms about work and family and long commutes and all kinds of other stuff that make it hard for middle aged men to make and sustain friendships. 

There’s a cost, though, to all this – a cost in social cohesion, a cost in risk for what we call deaths of despair – suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction that have driven down men’s life expectancy in recent years. With lack of connection being one of the risk factors in these things. 

Anyway, in a smaller way, a few years ago, I was feeling these costs.

A few years ago, I realized I could really use a couple more friends. I was also thinking I could use another spiritual friend or two, people that would understand my faith and values, and with whom I could pray. I love my spiritual relationships here at Reservoir, but I’m always a pastor here, and I wanted a couple more relationships like this outside this church.

But it’s not like you can order friends on Amazon, right? Like hey, I’ll search for local prayer partners that are available. 

So what’d I do? Well, I thought about the local pastors I knew. And I thought of this one guy, who I’d only had a couple short conversations with before, but I knew him by reputation, and we’d been around each other at a few events and meetings. And I liked him, he seemed like a good person too, someone I could connect with and trust.

So I made an appointment to see him, and I was like: hey, I need another pastor friend, and you seem like a good guy. Wanna be friends?

Don’t get me wrong, it was hella awkward at first, for me at least. But he wasn’t awkward at all. In fact, he was like: hey, thanks for thinking of me. And it turns out that another pastor we both knew had reached out to him earlier in the month about getting together a couple times a month to talk and pray together, and he was like maybe you should join us? 

And I did, and for a few years now, we’ve been friends, meeting up a couple times a month for open, candid conversation and prayer. And these friendships have been great. They’ve been useful – I’ve learned about some great resources through these guys, gotten some ideas professionally. They’ve helped me network, gave me advice on a grant I won. And I think I’ve been useful to them too. 

But more than these instrumental benefits, the connection itself in this circle has been tremendously life giving. It’s been a place to be real, to be honest, to get support and affirmation and sanity checks, and to give the same. 

This making of connection started with God growing an awareness in me that I needed it and a sense of where to turn. And then it took my risk and initiative to do something to connect and open up as well as the grace and kindness of a couple folks interested in reciprocating to make this circle of connection and care. 

And it’s gotten deeper because one of the guys wanted this to move beyond just a light social thing and make this a community of practice too – a place where we talk about what we’re doing to be more healthy, wholehearted people and pastors. And that’s given us more reasons to keep getting together and has made these friendships one of the places where for me too, the light of God can get into the cracks for me. 

In a lot of ways, friends, that’s what this church is here for. 

God values for each of us the life-giving connections that will help us pursue God’s wholeness, love, and leading in every area of our lives. And we like to try to encourage that happening. 

We affirm here that to have a good life and a good faith, we don’t need to be particularly rich or beautiful or favored or lucky in any other way. 

We just need help discovering that we are connected, that we are seen and known and loved by a living God. That the goodness and loving kindness of that God follows us wherever we go. And that these experiences of divine love and connection can be mirrored and reflected in rich human to human connections as well. 

Now this may or may not be your experience of church today, but my invitation today is to see if this can’t be true here, if you’d like it to be.

Our membership agreement at Reservoir is pretty simple. You fill it out online at our website, and you’re a member, period. And it doesn’t start with telling you what to believe or what to do, it starts with connection, with saying I believe God has good things in the life for me and others, and that this community can be one of the places in life that encourages those good things.

The membership invitation invites you to, in metaphorical terms, attend Jesus’ party. In literal terms, it says

“I will simply be there, through regular participation on Sundays and through participation in a community group as able.”

We invite you to participate in these ways because this kind of participation for most people stimulates greater connection, community, and belonging.  Church is a rare place to be a contributing, participating member of a community that doesn’t sort and define us on the terms of capitalism, but of beloved community. 

And it’s a place, particularly in our community groups, where some real depth of connection is possible over time. Many of our groups encourage a community of practice, as our pastor of community life Ivy has talked about – places where we try practices that deepen our experience of God and develop a rich spiritual life.

But all our groups start by trying to be communities of connection and care, places where we can show up authentically just as we are, and find that others are glad we’re there, and glad to be part of the connections that help us not just not be alone, but experience the goodness and encouragement and gift of community that we need. 

Our sense as a church is that after all we’ve been through the past couple of years, a lot of us are eager for a little more connection in our lives. Maybe God is stirring that hunger for you too. If so, I hope you’ll pay attention to that, lean into the opportunities around you. 

It’s not good to be alone. You’re all worth better than that, I promise you. And if this community can be part of your circles of connection and care and practice, know we’re here for that.

Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love

Well, what a gift to welcome these children into our church, but not just into our church but into the global fellowship across time we call the Body of Christ.

To me it felt like a day to talk about the love that is at the very center of our faith. God’s lavish, extravagant love. And Jesus’ vision for us to be the Beloved Community – people who learn to love God with our whole being, and people who are formed to love one another as ourselves. 

Our scripture today is from Luke 15, the famous story Jesus tells which we call the parable of the prodigal son, because there’s a kid in the story who is kind of extra, kind of extravagant and lavish in the way he spends down his inherited wealth while his parents, or at least his dad, is still alive. 

But the main character of the story isn’t either of the grown children in it but the father, who is really the most prodigal character of the story, the most lavish, the most extravagant one. 

So today I’ll read the story of the prodigal God/parent in four parts, and our message is about the lavish love of God for us all, and the extravagant love of God, of self, of friends, lovers, children, even love of causes, love of justice to which we are all called. Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love. 

Here we go:

Luke 15: 11-12 (Common English Bible)

11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons.

12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 

Love invests.

When I was a teenager, I dated this girl for a while, and one time she went somewhere with my family – the details are pretty hazy since it was over three decades ago. But here’s the one thing I remember. My girlfriend got sick and threw up on the floor, and before I even knew what was happening, my mom sent her to the bathroom to go clean up and I think I waited for her to walk her outside afterwards, but my mom stayed behind to clean it all up. 

And I remember thinking: what is going on here? Because my mom had done this kind of thing again and again for me and both my brothers. But now here she is cleaning up my girlfriend’s puke as well, looking after this girl who isn’t even hers, just because I cared about her, and my mom was there.

I think part of me took that for granted, like most kids take their moms for granted a lot of the time. But part of me registered what was going on and thought, wow, this is what love looks like. 

Love invests.

Think about all we give our kids if we have them: for 20 years, in the prime of our lives, they become a huge part of our finances, our time, our attention, our emotional lives, our labor, our contact with other people’s bodily fluids, sometimes the center of all those things. And mostly until we die, they stay right near the center of our hearts and our longings. We invest everything we can in them, or at least we try. 

God as parent is like this too. God has invested such brilliant creativity in the creation and expansion of this universe: such a wildly complex and beautiful place. And one in which the freedoms and chaos required for all that complexity and beauty mean all kinds of things go wrong in the universe all the time. It’s such a chaotic and violent place too, our universe, certainly our earth. 

And if there’s one baseline quality the scriptures attribute to God in relation to all this is that God really cares about it all, more than you’d expect really. God takes enormous pleasure – the word is usually delight – in everything that goes well in the universe. New species evolve, new life grows, new love blossoms, new relationships bond, new justices are achieved, and God beams with pride and joy. This matters to God.

Just as when species go extinct, life dies, love is shattered, relationships severed, injustices fester and God is angry and heartbroken. 

Great investment and great risks are the hallmark of love, and God is no exception. The father in this story, who certainly could be a mother too, seems to be an image of God for Jesus and certainly makes a great investment and takes great risk. 

This parent has accrued land and wealth, saving and preserving it carefully for his children. And when the younger one asks for his share, which would have been a third of his family’s wealth, the father takes an enormous risk and says: I’ll do this. What the younger child does here, to ancient near eastern ears, is a horrifying dishonor to his family. He’s more or less saying:

Dad, you’re old. Get on with it. I wish you’d just be dead and gone, and I could get what’s coming to me.

Well, the father doesn’t die, but he takes a huge risk in trusting his kid with an early inheritance, with holding back none of his investment. 

More often than not, God is just like this with God’s creation – mostly letting us have our way, however foolish our intentions. Because God created like this – making huge investments in all life in the universe, but for the sake of beauty and freedom and abundance of dignity and life for us all, taking a huge risk as well. 

And baseline, this is what love looks like for us all as well – making investments and taking risks. And for us as with God, our investments aren’t mostly about money, but about all the resources we have, money only being only one of them. Love is about the lavish investment of our attention, our time, our wisdom, our affection, our encouragement. Love is mostly about showing up again and again with all of that for the people and communities and causes we choose to love. 

Love takes the risk to again and again say and show that what’s mine is yours. Whether I love my children or my wife or my friends or this community of Reservoir Church or even when I try to love my enemy, as Jesus commands, I’m making available the resources entrusted to me – money, time, attention, care, and more – and making them available to others, in their interest, and in the interest of our shared relationship and well-being.

Love invests. 

And love lets go. We pick up the story of the now broken family. 

Luke 15: 13-20a (Common English Bible)

13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need.

15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.

16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.

17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!

18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’

20 So he got up and went to his father.

Did the father in this story know what would happen? I mean, it’s fiction, it’s a story Jesus told, so it’s not like we can answer that question. But I’m quite sure that God is like most parents. God doesn’t control the future, so God can’t predict it entirely, but good parents know their kids pretty well, so they often have a sense of what’s going to happen next. And they let go when it’s time anyway, because love lets go.

I think knowing their kid, the parent in this story probably didn’t think that the younger son was going to make a series of wise and generous choices. This kid just doesn’t seem like that kind of person. And they aren’t. Things go really badly. Until he’s working a dead end, demeaning job, living in poverty, and wondering if he can scheme his way back into the family he so flamboyantly left not long ago. 

One of you, a psychology professor, used to tell me when my kids were all just entering the teenage years, that in modern, Western culture at least, the teenage years weren’t just about growing up but the beginnings of the dissolution of the family unit. God, I hated it every time you said that, because it’s kind of true. I mean, maybe not only dissolution, maybe more like reconstitution, but things for kids and their parents and their family change as the kids grow up. And a big part of that change is on the parents’ behalf, starting to let go. 

I was talking with an older friend of mine recently, whose kids are all older than mine too. And he was telling me about one of his grown kids, whose life is at least from the parent’s perspective, of course in a number of ways. And my friend was talking about the pains that were likely ahead of their child in the years to come – divorce, heartbreak, some other struggles – and my friend was like:

I’m making my peace with this, though, because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ll keep engaging, I’ll keep showing up for this grown child of mine, but I can’t stop any of these things.

It’s so awesome to be a parent of growing teens and young adults, but it’s so heartbreaking too. Because love lets go. Parents need to let go of control over their children, more so every year. Friends let go, when friends grow distant, or when they stick around but they just move on from us. Lovers let go, when our beloved breaks up with us or divorces us or even when we stay together, or when our beloved changes and we need to let go of old expectations we had or an older form of a relationship that has changed. 

God’s like this too. In God’s uncontrolling, vulnerable love, God doesn’t always insist on God’s way. When we reject wisdom, when we reject what’s best for us, when we reject God, God keeps caring, keeps invisibly wooing us to the best, but God lets us have our way. God lets go.

Because love lets go. 

But that doesn’t mean love gives up and packs it in. Love keeps showing up in the ways that are appropriate to do so. Like my friend with the grown kid, love keeps engaging in ways that honor the beloved. Because while love lets go, love also protects.

We pick up our story. 

Luke 15: 20b-24 (Common English Bible)

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.

21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!

23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting

24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

The other month I was talking with Vernee Wilkinson, a member at Reservoir. She and Laura Everett, a pastor who’s a friend of our church, are doing some work for local churches around practices of mending and repair, and Vernee was helping me talk through the series we just concluded on healing and mending.

And Vernee told me a story about her son, and the holes and tears in the knees of his pants, and what she’d do about that. 

See, in this work of mending, Laura and Vernee will talk about throw-away fast fashion, and the harm to our environment and our economy and our souls really that comes from throwing so much away, and mending and fixing so little. 

But Vernee said, when it comes time that the knees of my boy’s pants tear, I do not patch those up. I buy him some new pants. Because Vernee’s son is Black, and as a Black woman in America, Vernee is painfully aware of the ways people and whole communities judge Black children, and her mother’s heart is fiercely and appropriately protective of her son, still young and under her care. And so like her parents did for her, she is going to make sure that her son goes out into the world with clothes that aren’t torn and that aren’t patched up in ways that judging, discriminating eyes could view as signs of poverty or neglect.

Because let’s face it, for all our talk of progress, we still live in a world that is too often fiercely anti-Black in our hearts and our judgements and our violence, and Vernee is going to do what is in her power to protect her son from the worst of that world for as long as she can. 

Much honor to Vernee and to every parent who’s protected their children as best as they could. And much honor to parents of children of color, who are doing double and triple and quadruple work on this front in a racist, dangerous world, fully knowing that their protection is limited. 

Our world is unsafe, and given our sin and injustice, it’s less safe for girls than boys, less safe for queer than straight, less safe for BIPOC than for white people, less safe in neighborhoods and countries with more poverty. And none of us can fully protect our beloved. 

But in the ways that we can and are appropriate to our beloved’s age and agency, we’re dang sure going to try. 

In this sense, we’re less different from God than we tend to think. God also can’t fully protect God’s kids from harm. Chaos and violence are part of our world of freedom, and awful things happen. God can’t micro-intervene with every danger, just like a good parent isn’t a helicopter parent, trying to shield kids from every possible harm, trying to have them avoid suffering entirely. So it is with God.

But God has limited chaos and disorder in the universe. If nothing else, no violent creature, no matter how evil or powerful, can escape their own death as well. God has also commanded and inspires the protection of the dignity of all creatures. God has in most religious traditions and abundantly so in the teaching and person of Jesus Christ, put out a teaching grace into the world too, always waiting and always welcoming our return.

Look at the father in this passage, not moving on from his wayward kid in anger or disappointment, but out on the porch night after night, scanning the horizon, checking his texts, just waiting for his son’s return, and running down the street to embrace him and welcome him home when he comes back. This kid who has squandered a third of the family’s wealth is so welcomed home, so loved upon his return, that a feast is thrown in his honor.

It’s like the wedding day his son never had, all at the father’s expense, but part of how we protect our beloveds in a vulnerable world is we never stop loving them, we provide a kind of relational, emotional, spiritual canopy of safety through this willingness to say: as long as I live, I’m still here for you and what’s mine is shared with you. 

There’s a lot of tension in this dimension of prodigal love, how love protects even when we can’t fully protect, how love protects while love also lets go. So these dimensions of letting go and protection take prayer, and growing wisdom and discernment. 

But sometimes at least, it’s not complicated. 

We protect our kids when they’re young by not neglecting them, and looking out for their wellbeing.

And we protect the kids of our communities by doing the same. Or we ought to. Our country is shamefully neglectful and wicked in this regard, in open rebellion against the ways of love. A couple years back, death by firearm passed death by traffic accident as the leading cause of death for children in America. 

We’ve worked hard on the traffic accident stuff, lots of laws, billions of dollars in safety engineering so that fewer of our kids will die on the roads. But at the same time, we’ve been loosening our gun laws more and more, guaranteeing another Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and Uvalde, Texas will happen again and again. I am so angry. 

Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr’s last sermon he was working on was titled, “Why America May Go to Hell,” and times like this, I am sure he was right then. And there are quite a few reasons that’s so but failing to protect our children and failing to do the collective work so that we don’t have to protect our children so much, so that we don’t have to worry if their school will be next, or we don’t have to worry if our beautiful Black child will be judged by the patches on his knees, is a big part of this. 

Love protects. Y’all, parents or not, please keep an eye out for the welfare of all our children. There isn’t much more sacred we can do in following Jesus than this. 

And love pursues. For the sake of time, I’ll be ever so brief on this point, just reading the end of the story mostly, but it’s the climax Jesus is driving at. 

Luke 15:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.

26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.

27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’

28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.

29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.

30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’

31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

Love pursues.

The father looks at his entitled, bitter, judgy oldest child and says:

son, I love you too. This kid is furious at this dad, and the dad says: everything I have is yours as well. Everything I have is yours.

Love might let go, and love might need to change and adapt, but love doesn’t stop loving. God hasn’t given up on our violent nation or any of God’s troubled kids, you and me included. And as people of the beloved community, that call is ours as well. 

Love keeps engaging, keeps protecting the dignity even of exes and enemies. Love dreams of reconciliation, and when that’s impossible in this life, releases the beloved with blessing. Love puts up with things, loves trusts in all things, love hopes for all things, endures all things. Which is why, the scriptures dare us to believe, love doesn’t fail. 

Love works. Love wins.

Not always how we think it will, not always today or even tomorrow, but eventually, we hope. Love has its way.

Jesus hopes that the judgy elder children of his time will lay down their judgements and join God in welcoming the love of all God’s children.

God hopes that Americans will stop letting people shoot our kids and trash our earth but find our way towards Jesus’ beloved community together. God hopes we’ll love better, love more because love heals, love doesn’t disappoint, love never fails.