Cloud

Today we are going to continue in our new series called, “God Is Here.” This series is inspired by a friend of Steve’s – Rabbi Toba Spitzer.  She’s written a book with this same title, and it is an extraordinary book that not only has given us teaching material for the next few Sundays that I think is really expansive and helpful (by the use of non-human metaphors for God that we’ll explore), she also has given us spiritual practices that allow us to experience God through these metaphors and of course help us live our life with the presence of God “close,” beyond a Sunday morning.

Today, I’ll speak on God as Cloud – and we’ll touch on some of those spiritual practices.

We’ll take a look at the use of the cloud metaphor in the Old Testament, as well as how it carries through in a New Testament story – particularly as we think of “going into the thick of a cloud” at certain moments in our life, when obstacles or challenges are present.

Prayer

Oh God of the clouds – and all of creation. Thank you for days like yesterday that were sunny and beautiful – reminding us so strongly of the warmth of your presence. And thank you for days that are cloudy and rainy reminding us that you seek to nurture and cover us – and remind us of you – in droplets of your love at every turn. Help us to notice God – help us to notice you. Amen.

History of OT | Cloud

The nearness or farness of God is at the heart of so many of the conversations and stories of Scripture.  How and where people have perceived the presence of God. How they’ve been guided by closeness of God – or felt abandoned by God. The question that arises is,

“Where is God to us?”

It’s why the use of metaphor is so helpful – particularly the use of metaphor that speaks of God with renewed meaning that opens up rather than closes down the ineffable mystery of God – because sometimes we need metaphor to help us have access to an experienced way to think about and talk about God.

Walter Brueggemann, an OT scholar and theologian,  says that teachers and pastors often succeed at

“flattening out all the images and metaphors of God, to make them fit in a nice little formulation,”

one that works within creeds and doctrines,  easier to make sense of, wrap our minds around – a  little cleaner, neater… visible (in some ways) God.

Rabbi Spitzer says that likewise her biblical ancestors tried to shrink the presence of God into

“material objects – into idols made of metal or wood or clay. But the divine could only be glimpsed, not fully seen, heard but not entirely comprehended, encountered but not contained. … but with the metaphor of Cloud, the biblical authors found a way to convey a sense of nearness to ‘Something Close By/God’ that could not be touched.” (154).

OT Examples:

Throughout the Old Testament we see the presence of God as Cloud in numerous instances: 

  • The Israelites, as they fled the bondage of Egypt were accompanied by a column of cloud and fire.
  • It becomes an ongoing feature of the Israelites journey through the wilderness. 
  • Ever-present sign of God’s “abundant lovingkindness – that did not abandon them in the wilderness.”
  • The children of Israel did not move unless they were led by the cloud of God’s presence. The God -cloud was guidance.
  • It was also a sign of divine nurturance, protection and presence *protective between Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian army.
  • A shelter from heat.
  • And an indication of the availability of water.

God and cloud are a known partnership to the Israelite people.

The thing is –

“the nature of clouds is that they obscure things from view – while also making something that is usually invisible – visible.”

  • Water vapor is always in the sky – but invisible.
  • And yet – when water vapor interacts with dust/ice/salt it becomes visible as a cloud.

Clouds make visible that there is something life-sustaining and ever-present (whether water vapor or the divine). Both hold the mystery of being unseen, and very much there.

Whether in private or public moments, throughout the OT – God as cloud was often recognizable to the Israelites – AND reassuring.

HOWEVER there are times when the appearance of the cloud is not reassuring – and instead frightening and daunting.

Let’s read these few verses in Exodus this is shortly after the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt – and where they met God as a nation at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the 10 Commandments.

Exodus 20: 18-21

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance

19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness/dark cloud where God was.

So this is an interesting passage because the all familiar form of God as cloud – is seemingly one the Israelites don’t want to explore here. 

They keep their distance because it’s a thick, stormy, lightning and thunder-filled cloud.  Makes sense to me. It’s not my first reaction to go toward something that feels hard, looks like an obstacle or is just altogether scary. 

And Rabbi Spitzer says,  “exactly” – the Israelites represent us on any given day! Especially where we encounter something in our path – that looks like an obstacle. When we encounter a hindrance, like this cloud to the Israelites, we naturally want to back away – keep our distance, push away any of the unpleasant feelings associated with what’s happening in front of us…hindrances operate by distracting us from our actual experience.

And as we create distance – we also shrink our awareness/perspective that God is likely present in the thunder and lightning too. 

And this can obscure our ability to perceive what is actually happening in our mind or hearts. 

STORY

This summer at the end of my sabbatical we decided to take a family vacation. It was in some ways our last opportunity to spend time with our daughter who was leaving for college, a steady-ing chunk of days for our other kids, and a great way to finish off my sabbatical.

We went to a small town in Mexico that we have visited many times in the past. A  setting, where we know the town, the streets, the local doctor (who we visited in the past) – etc.  A special place where we’d taken friends and my Dad a couple of times. It’s where we went to grieve my Dad’s death – this place is meaningful and healing and familiar.

We took off, we touched down. Arrived at the rental car place – which is still part of the airport proper… and while waiting for our car, my husband Scott’s backpack was stolen.  At his feet, as he turned in “this” direction it was swapped out for an identical – but empty one

  • Which held all of our passports
  • And two laptops
  • And you know a bunch of other stuff

DARK CLOUD – THUNDER & LIGHTNING  – RAIN – HAIL – WINDS- THICK, THICK, THICK, CLOUD

As you might imagine, that was an “unpleasant” experience.

Now the good news is …that because it happened 40 minutes into our arrival – we had the WHOOOOLLLLEEE  vacation to figure out how to get the appropriate documents from the consulate, get passport photos done, travel to various government offices, get a police report written, navigate short working hours at all these places -and find a laptop and printer to do all this on. 

I did not want to deal with this, any of this.  I wanted it …”to be other than it was.” This frantic desire though, made me (even more) miserable – and became its own obstacle.  (164 – 165)

I was preoccupied with figuring out how and when this unpleasantness would end.  Constantly calculating

  • – if we can get an appointment tomorrow at the consulate
  • – then we could potentially have emergency passports by Friday
  • – which means we could really start enjoying our vacation by the weekend.
  • And every possible scenario from that…

My aversion to the reality of my own experience, the more I tried to push that reality away, to keep distance from it, the unhappier I got. And the grumpier everyone else got.  Awesome!

One of my kids as we were playing UNO one of those first nights – picked up on my “salty mood,”  and she was like, “listen if you and everyone else are just going to be in a bad mood, and not enjoy this time together – we should just go home now.”

*which was funny because I was like

oh honey, – WE CAN’T GO HOME!*’

But I got her point –

“pay attention to the reality that is in front of you, mom  – ‘Yes’ this stinks, but everything is actually NOT ruined – you are playing UNO with me, connecting as we had planned, outside in warm weather, with the sound of the ocean in the background.”

God’s presence is in “both sides” of the clouds, the pleasant and the difficult.

Rabbi Spitzer says,

“obstacles can become an opportunity for awareness and connection.”

When a cloud obscures your view from the mountaintop – or you can’t see while driving when a fog rolls in – all you can do is slooooww down, and sit with what is – and sometimes that does mean we “go into the thick of the cloud. And just be in it.” 

Challenging moments litter our human experience. In micro ways, in macro ways – in ways that have been unjustly intertwined in our systems and institutions. We live in and out of the clouds.  The ones that are wispy and beautiful – that create the breath-taking sunsets – and ones that we can see from miles away that say “storm coming! Evacuate!” 

It’s helpful in those more stormy clouds to slow down and notice what our reaction is  – do we want to lean in? Pull away? Lash out? 

“When we can take a breath and notice what is happening internally – this is how we can short-circuit the feedback loop of aversion.” (Spitzer)

Moses here, goes directly into the cloud.  Expecting that God is in that thick, foreboding place. Expecting that not only is God’s presence there – but that it will be insightful, liberative – and aid in the spiritual growth of a nation.  I think Moses knew that he had to draw near to this experience, this cloud – to move forward. 

*Which makes me wonder, what are the obstacles or hindrances that I have to draw near to, in order to move forward?*

By turning into the “cloud” Moses discovers the truth that awaits him and a whole nation. And while Moses’ moment here feels kind of big – you know, the 10 commandments for a whole people.  I think often the truth we discover is much like my moment of playing UNO – a truth that is already present in our reality  – anchoring. The truth that God loves us and is with us. When we can encounter that truth – God does help us – to act with clarity and wisdom.

IT’S HARD THOUGH!

We feel so much in those moments – moments like passports being stolen, that sideline us out of nowhere, or long-term grievances with neighbors, or feelings of rejection from a friend or partner, or frustration with a family member  – or feeling unseen by your boss – or by society.  IT IS A LOT to keep walking into those thick clouds and find anything with clarity, when fear and anger and sadness are also their own micro-climates!

In fact I would prefer if someone could just bring the message to me, that I’m supposed to glean from this scary/overwhelming situation or person.  The Israelites are like,

“Go ahead Moses, go right into that scary cloud, we’ll be right here, over here – so you can report back to us.”

God though, it seems –  is interested in more than departing a “lesson” to us – right? And God knows that when we stay at a distance in hard things – we end up trying to teach ourselves a lesson…

  • Ex: My bag wouldn’t have gotten stolen if I had/hadn’t ..
  • My kid would be better if I had/hadn’t…
  • I would have gotten the job if I had said this…
  • or gotten the grant if I had written that..

And that my friends is the scariest of storm clouds…guilt, shame, self-judgment…rewinding, replaying…not moving.

God just wants us to experience that God is with us. The 10 commandments, even, were more than a list of rules to follow – they tell us of the generosity of God, who liberated God’s people – a God whose love sets us free from all that enslaves us…and is present in all the storms of life.  

In the New Testament in the Gospel of John – we see this same dynamic with the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the disciples.  Crowds of people had started following Jesus and they gathered in a field, to be closer to Jesus. And the disciples are figuring out how to feed all these people….

JOHN 6:8-12, 16-21

When a boy offers his five small loaves of bread and two small fish  … that is more than enough, resulting in 12 baskets of leftovers…

It’s an idyllic scene where people are close to Jesus, fed to abundance – sitting on a grassy, sunny, hillside.

*And then evening comes and we read this,

16 the disciples went down to the lake,

17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.

18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.

19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.

20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”

21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

Jesus In the Storm

The disciples- are at one moment sitting in the sunshine – in an expansive grassy field… filled with the bounty of not only a meal of bread and fish … but fed with comfort, peace, abundance, the presence of Jesus, seen and known in their midst. A recognizable “cloud” if we keep up with the metaphor.

And then everything changes – as they find themselves in a storm.
The sea, once a familiar landscape for many of these disciple fisherman –  is now unrecognizable and:

    • The darkness of the storm overtakes the moon… 
    • The waves overtake the boat…
    • The wind overtakes the disciple’s balance…
    • All their bearings are lost…
  • And they find themselves in a previously known…. but now, overwhelmingly scary and unrecognizable place.

We move about our days with rhythms and patterns – and we absorb what is familiar/recognizable as good – evidence of the presence of God.  We can gauge our days as  “good” or “bad” by how much or how little our sense of the familiar is disrupted.

But our life is not either/or… not “always sunny” or “always cloudy.” I mean it can feel like that – but the reality is – it is just changing. Our life is always changing. And the contrast of clouds and light – help us to realize this. 

Things change, moment to moment.  Destinations – like the shoreline for these disciples disappears in the mist,  the destination of the promised land for the Israelites only looks like wilderness for so long… and our dreams change. Dreams we hoped for in our lives – the way we thought our partnerships or career would play out … the dreams we had for our kids … 

We’d love for them to be sunny… but we experience heartbreaking things in our lives – the sun is often times covered for a long time. We weep – we rejoice  – we grieve – we give thanks…  We weep – we rejoice  – we grieve – we give thanks… this is the pattern.

Everything comes and goes.

And GOOD can feel as though it is eluding our grasp.

GOD, can feel as though God is eluding us….

The disciples in the midst of the storm … Have lost so much that was once anchoring and known to them – the visibility of the JESUS they knew -and the question that is in that boat is,

“WHERE IS JESUS?”

All that is left for them is what they are experiencing in the moment, what they are feeling…
The feeling of being afraid, isolated, anxiety-ridden, overwhelmed by their circumstances…

These feelings can rock us – as much as the waves of life – so much so that like the disciples – or the Israelites we create a distance between God and us… so much so that even as Jesus might be approaching our boat, walking on  water – making himself as visible as possible – we remain frightened.

Jesus says, “do not be afraid” to his disciples

Moses says to his people, “do not be afraid.”

And I wonder if part of that command is to not let the fear that is so prevalent become the sum of our experience… to not let it overtake us and strike everything good from view. 

Rabbi Spitzer says that as a practice we can start to recognize things in our environment that have beginnings and endings… to attune ourselves to this reality- 

“like a sound we notice on our day – as it rises and passes…. Or as we are out for a walk  – to notice the trees, and cars, and buildings that we pass by – as they come into view and fade from view…All these things arise, and change and pass away.” (spitzer)

This helps us to learn that even our mind-state/emotions are not permanent.

Like everything else, they arise and pass, if we can simply let it be. 

And with that realization the power over us is lessened… 

It can help us separate from the story,  that gets caught up in our emotions.  And as we can turn toward what we are feeling, not away from it – we make more space for the presence of God… and this helps us see that,

“I am not my anxiety, I’m not my sadness or my happiness – or my anger – or my confusion.”

Emotions and mind-states come and go – and I can keep steady in their passing, as I welcome the presence of God.  Whether I, like Moses go toward the cloud and sit in the midst of it – or like the disciples, we await the presence of Jesus that comes  to find us – comes to companion us wherever we are. 

Pretty quickly I realized that every single day we were in Mexico – there was going to be something we had to do to make sure we could get home.  It was just the reality – and that was maddening and disappointing to me, so I went outside in the dark one evening and asked God,

“Where are you? Are you even here? Do you care about us?”

…Waiting.. Waiting…

And then I noticed my kids spill out onto the beach, they didn’t know I was there. And I heard one of them say to the other,

“aaah look at the moon – come, see the moon.”

*And for some reason those words brought God back into view.. .Maybe the same way the disciples heard Jesus say,

“It is me. It’s me, I’m here with you.”

My deep fear was that God wasn’t close  – and that even if God was, that God’s presence wouldn’t make a difference in the midst of what felt like stolen moments from my family.

The wisdom of clouds is ‘yes’, that everything is changing –  BUT IT’S ALSO THAT THE PRESENCE OF GOD LOVES TO ENGAGE with us just as we are… our salty tears and our dust covered hearts – it IS where God is most felt and encountered and VISIBLE.

I can’t wrap my mind around  – why a moment I witnessed with my kids about the moon – shifted me back to a sense of closeness with God – but I can wrap my heart around it. I felt it. Even in the midst of no circumstantial change.

It’s part of why I continue to follow Jesus – despite the growing roster of hindrances on a societal and national level that suggests Christianity has a duly earned bad rap.

It’s that deep down I want to believe in something bigger, something that I CAN NOT fully comprehend or capture in a box.  I find it unbelievably meaningful and  precious to continue to search for ways to define the Divine (the undefinable).  (Thanks Andrea Gibson)

The galaxy, the universe, the MOON, the wonder, the sitting in something  – being a part of something – knowing that I too have stardust in my own being – feeling that I am connected to all of that grandness – but not fully understanding how all of it works… that’s the part I love.

Because it keeps me believing that in circumstances and situations that do not play out like a cosmic moment, but actually feel gritty and burdened and hard. Somehow that the universe-sized- bigness of God’s love will play out in the end  – will walk across water, or come down from a mountain to find me.

The stories of God in a big trembling cloud at Mt. Sinai, the feeding of the 5,000, the stormy sea, our trip to Mexico – and whatever your cloud-stories are…  are not separate, different stories – they are a continuous story –  the story of our lives. 

And within, is the GREAT thru-line of Jesus’ presence, which is altogether nourishing, guiding and protective.  ALLTOGETHER THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA – the beginning, (the becoming), and the end.

As we close in prayer,

Consider what kind of cloud represents God to you these days? Fluffy, wispy? Fleeting? Stormy?

* What do you feel as you approach this cloud?
* How far or near does God’s presence feel?

Dear God, in whatever form you take – however your presence is known to us – could you let us know of your great love for us? Your great guidance? Your great freedom for us? Your great mystery? And could you hold us in the waves and in the storms – with a nearness that both defies and affirms your greatness…

Amen.

Freedom

Dancing feel so good! It’s been a while…

There is a good feeling we get when we find freedom, isn’t there? 

The capacity to move as we’re meant to move, to be as we’re meant to be, to learn and grow and love as the deepest parts of us know we need to.

Yeah, a free person shines like the stardust we’re made out of, like the lights that we are. 

But woah, it’s hard to get there and stay there, isn’t it? 

Real talk – how many of you had fun a minute ago? 

OK, and how many of you were like: what is happening? 

Do I have to get up? Do I have to move? Who’s looking at me? What in the world is Steve doing?

Don’t worry, it was my idea and I was thinking every one of those things. Everyone, don’t worry.

Yeah, we have a lot of resistance to freedom. We want to not be constrained by conventions that don’t suit us. But man, we also don’t want to be that weird person who’s unconventional. 

We want to dare to live by our deepest convictions, to flow in the world in consonance with our deepest truths and hopes, but can we? Is it safe? Is it normal? Will it work?

Freedom and resistance – resistance to our own freedom, sometimes resistance to others’ freedom – tend to show up together. 

Freedom also isn’t just following every one of our instincts without impediment. Freedom is nuanced. Freedom lives within constraint. With great freedom comes great responsibility, they say. It’s true. 

But freedom is really important to us and our flourishing. It’s important to God too. And it’s important to this community you’re in right now. 

This month, in our We Are Reservoir series, we’re preaching through our five core values – Connection last week, Everyone, Humility, and Action yet to come. And freedom is up this week.

Here’s how we defined this years ago when we changed our name to Reservoir Church. 

Freedom 

We encourage honest exploration of faith over conformity of belief or behavior, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.

This is a really important value of this community. I think it’s a really important value of Jesus’ whole Beloved Community, what Jesus, in his teaching, called the

kingdom

or

the family or the commonwealth of God. 

And I think all of us don’t just prize whatever freedom we have, we’re kind of longing for more liberation, yearning to be more free. 

So today, we take a glance, from a Jesus-centered perspective, about what freedom is or isn’t and how we get there. 

Here’s our text, from one of the earlier letters in the New Testament, written by Paul of Tarsus to the little house churches in Galatia, a region of the Roman Empire that’s now part of Turkey.

It’s kind of the climax of the whole letter. Here we go.

Galatians 5:1-14  (Common English Bible)

5 1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

2 Look, I, Paul, am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, having Christ won’t help you.

3 Again I swear to every man who has himself circumcised that he is required to do the whole Law.

4 You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace!

5 We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith.

6 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.

7 You were running well—who stopped you from obeying the truth?

8 This line of reasoning doesn’t come from the one who calls you.

9 A little yeast works through the whole lump of dough.

10 I’m convinced about you in the Lord that you won’t think any other way. But the one who is confusing you will pay the penalty, whoever that may be.

11 Brothers and sisters, if I’m still preaching circumcision, why am I still being harassed? In that case, the offense of the cross would be canceled.

12 I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.

14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

You don’t have to, but I want us to remember this line I’m about to say, so if you’re willing can you say this line with me, say it after me:

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Here’s what’s going on. 

A number of people in this region have heard about the way of Jesus, and they are in. Listening to the words and stories of Jesus before they were even written down. They were learning to worship and trust the God Jesus loved, pray as Jesus taught us to pray, live in love and live by faith the way Jesus taught us and showed us. 

And then some people told them:

there’s more.

They were like:

there are customs. There are rules. There’s a whole tradition you need to uphold, to fall in line with to be Christian.

Maybe these were visiting teachers from another church, maybe members of their community that had picked up these ideas, maybe their own local pastor, we don’t know. 

But we know that one of the customs, one of the rules, he/they were insisting upon was male circumcision. Male Jews had their foreskins of their penis removed at birth or conversion – it had been so for centuries. It was so for Jesus. It was so for Paul. 

And these teachers were like:

you need to do this too. It’s part of the system. You want to be Christian, you want to follow the way of Jesus, getting circumcised, or getting your son or husband or boyfriend or whoever to get circumcised, is one of the things you have to do.

Now I mean, I hate, I hate the way some Christians talk about this text. They call these teachers the Judaizers and act like having Gentiles pick up a few Jewish customs would be this awful thing. It sounds totally anti-semitic to me, and I’m not having that. 

And on the surface, it’s no big deal, I would think. I mean what’s wrong with a few rules? Nothing. What’s wrong with giving respect to the ancient faith tradition from which Jesus himself came? That seems beautiful to me, even if it were to involve a painful medical procedure for the men. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Who cares?

Well, Paul, one of the people who ended up writing bits of our Bible cared, and he cared a lot! He himself is Jewish. He loves his culture, his ancestry, the faith from which he came – he’s proud of it. But these teachers of the rules and customs required for belonging, they anger him. He’s like:

brothers, if you want to circumcise these folks, you ought to go ahead and castrate yourselves instead.

Not polite words. 

Here’s my take on this. 

I think what’s at stake is not at all about Jewish or not Jewish, not at all about rules or no rules. We all need some rules to live by, after all. No, here what’s at stake is at the heart of what God wants for us in Jesus. What’s at stake is freedom.

Jesus set you free so you can keep getting more free. For freedom Christ has set you free.

But we keep putting yourselves in prison, and that is a tragedy.

I want to talk about two sets of ways we tend to imprison ourselves, that Paul uses as sort of the opposites of the freedom for which Christ set us free, OK?

They’re the imprisonment of tower, and the imprisonment of field

Now this whole prison/slavery language… it’s hard, it’s loaded. 

We’re in a country whose real practices of slavery and imprisonment have been brutal and violent and racist, physical horrors we need deliverance from. So we can’t use language like this casually. 

On the slavery front, the same was true in Paul’s Roman empire, for what it’s worth – common and brutal and violent then. Some of the members of the Galatian house churches were slaves, and it was awful. 

So I don’t think Paul used slavery as a metaphor casually. He was trying to convey the desperate violence and entrapment of all the ways we fail to walk in freedom, saying we need deliverance from the literal imprisonment and enslavement of humans by humans, and we also need deliverance from the metaphorical, internal imprisonment and enslavement of persons by the systems we swim in and by ourselves as well. 

So there’s the metaphor. Let’s talk about our two big opposites of the freedom for which Jesus has set us free.

So the first I’m calling the Prison of Tower

The prison of tower is the need to be correct, stable, and secure. It’s the belief that you’ve got to always be right and better than. 

It’s often, the prison of tower, born out of insecurity or pride or both. The idea is: mark out your territory, your safe zone, build your tower, your fortress of superiority and protection, and the resist and judge everyone outside. 

For Paul’s opponents, they were like: morally, religiously, spiritually, this is a dangerous world. There are the Romans and the Pagans and the Persians and all kinds of people and beliefs and cultures and customs in the world, and they’re not good. They’re not true. 

Uphold the customs, follow the rules – circumcision included – that set you apart, that make you right and pure and pleasing to God. This will protect you, protect you from assimilation, protect you from the displeasure of God and the judgment of your community. 

But Paul’s like,

this is not the point of the way of Jesus. Faith in Jesus is not a better moral system to set you apart from the world or make you better than anyone else.  

Faith in Jesus is walking with Jesus in a relationship of trust, not a code of certainties. 

Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing relationship with the Spirit of God that leads you into right ways in all circumstances. 

Faith in Jesus is grace, the gift of knowing you’re loved by God, you’re a child of God, that God is always with you, never giving up on you, and can always guide you into greater goodness, greater joy, greater truth, greater freedom. 

Prison of tower still shows up in religious rigidity and superiority. When people say believe the codes we’ve taught you, obey the Bible the way we read it, follow the rules the way we teach them, and you will please God, you will be well, that’s an insecure prison tower. It claims righteousness and honor and safety and superiority, but it’s just smug superiority. 

Nationalism is the same. Loving your culture or your country because it’s home and it’s meaningful to you, that kind of pride is cool if you’ve got it. But confidence that your country or your culture are the best, the chosen, the ones deserving the most power or wealth, that’s prison of tower again – pride that builds walls and props up our little egos, but doesn’t bring us or our communities freedom. 

Put these two together with religious nationalism, in this country, Christian nationalism, and you’ve got a doubly toxic idolatry, claiming God’s backing and favor for our own petty, selfish, violent project. Paul’s like:

curse that kind of attitude. It will estrange you from Christ, lead you away from God It’s no good.

Now friends here at Reservoir, some of us have left prisons of tower. We were once part of Christian cultures, churches, ways of doing faith that we now see as fence-building, wall-building, narrow, rigid, smug, or judgmental. In our honest exploration of faith, we’ve walked away from conformity of belief or behavior. Maybe we believe the Holy Spirit is revealing some truth to us as we seek God. 

I believe that the Spirit of God has been revealing truth to this church, for instance, about inclusion, about good fruit in our lived experience as an important litmus test for healthy, liberating faith. I celebrate the paths of change and renewal going on here and in other places in the Body of Christ. 

But if we’ve left behind prisons of tower. Or if we’re offended, scandalized, angry about other systems of tower we maybe were never part of, I think we’re encouraged to two things, though.

One, spend our energy on our own journey of love, faithfulness, and freedom. Don’t get caught up judging the places we come from, or the tower-making, fear driven projects we were never part of.

Once on Twitter, I made a comment about the really bad behavior and imprisoning tower thinking of some American Christians. And the phrase I used was “so-called Christians.” And one of you messaged me, and you were like:

Steve, that so-called Christians language is smug and judgy, and you’re better than that, and our church is better than that too.

And I was like:

thank you. You are right. And I try not to do that. Judge not, lest you be judged.

And then two, don’t trade one tower for another. Don’t trade white supremacist Christian nationalism for rigidity or fundamentalism in more liberal convictions, for instance. Speak your truth, live by your convictions, follow the way you believe God is leading, but stay generous, stay loving. Be curious, not judgmental, you know. 

And don’t trade religious rigidity for rigidity about your diet or exercise or politics or whatever. It’s good to have convictions, it can be great to have rules to live by – I have mine. But don’t make the rules with the truth, your way in this moment with the way. None of us ever sees all truth. None of us has a God’s eye, complete perspective. We all see in part. We all live by grace. We all find our freedom best when we stay humble too, when we seek to live in love.

Alright, so that’s the prison of tower. I’ll be briefer here, so I can wrap up, but Paul also contrasts the freedom for which we’ve been set free with another prison, what I’ll call Prison of Field

 I made up this phrase, prison of field, but here’s what I mean by it. Unlike the tower – this fortress of rules and custom and superiority and pride that hides our insecurities, prison of field is like you see the whole field, you see everything you don’t have, and you need it all.

Prison of field is the need to have new and more and better people, experiences, and wealth. It’s like being a good American consumer – I want that, so I’m gonna get it. 

It can be born of lack. Like I’ve had so little, so now I’m going to get what’s mine. Or it can be born of entitlement, like I deserve all that. 

Prison of field is thinking: I’ll be happy when….

I’ll be happy when I have more money or better stuff.

I’ll be happy when I have a new or better job or lover or house.

I’ll be happy when I’m not sick anymore. 

Or even I’ll be happy when my kids are happy, or when my kids have no problems, or when they achieve this or that. I call that notion in myself the idolatry of the perfect child. 

It’s not fair to you or your kids and doesn’t bring us freedom.

Paul says don’t let your freedom in Christ

– your I’m beloved, God is with me no matter what –

don’t let that be an opportunity to be all about your own selfish impulses. 

Instead, serve one another in love. Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Pursue the well being of friend and stranger and enemy as you pursue your own and then you’ll stay free.

Because we’re not free when we’re living by compulsion, when we’re imprisoned by the endless discontentment and hunger for more that all the marketers want us to have. 

And we’re not free when we all can’t get free together.

When my consumption hurts your land, when my need for a new and better phone every two years piles up toxic trash in your backyard, we’re not free. When my ungoverned appetites for food or sex or whatever subject other creatures to my violence or my lustful gaze, then we’re not free. When my never quite enough feeling means I can’t ever commit to a person or a place or a calling, then I’m not free, right? 

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is ever-increasing freedom.

Friends, with all its flaws, best as we’re able, we’ve grown this church to be a place where conformity of behavior or belief is not expected. We’ve grown this church to be a community that encourages us all to honestly explore God and goodness and faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.

And Jesus has lived and died and lived again to set you free. To call you a child of God. And to inspire and guide you toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these things there is no law. 

Don’t settle for prison of tower or prison of field. 

Walk with God, listen to the Spirit, live by faith, and love, joy, and peace will be yours.

For freedom, Christ has set us free. 

For freedom, Christ has set us free.

LGBTQIA Service

History of Pride

  • Hi, I’m Becki. I’m glad you’re here this morning. Today’s service is celebrating Pride. It will vary from our traditional service format. Members of the Reservoir community who are also part of LGBTQIA+ community will be leading this service and I’ll let them introduce themselves. This service will consist of prayer, reflection, liturgy, and spiritual practice. We are glad you’re with us here today. 
  • I want to offer some context behind pride. Pride marches commemorate the seven days of the Stonewall riots, an uprising during a police raid on June 29th, 1969 in Greenwich Village. The riots were led by queer and trans people of color like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. At Pride each June, we celebrate how far we have come and we protest for how much farther we have to go. Our society is nowhere near perfect in terms of inclusion and acceptance.  
  • But we have a social and cultural view of “perfect” that we assume matches God’s view of “perfect”. But God’s view of perfect is so much wider than ours. I believe that God sees perfect when he looks at people celebrating and protesting at Pride, God sees the fullness of themself in the margins of society and says “this is good” at people being wholly and beautifully themselves and among community. We don’t even have the capacity to fully understand God’s depth of love and capacity for inclusion but we can awe and wonder at it. 

Now we will have a spiritual practice led by Emmett. 

If-firmations  

  • Hi, I’m Emmett, my pronouns are they/them.
  • Sometimes, when there are reframes in perspective like God’s view of perfection, we lean into affirmations to try to convince ourselves of truths we don’t yet fully believe or remind ourselves of truths we tend to forget. For example, pay attention to what you feel in your body when I say affirmations like the following: 

“I am enough”

“I deserve love”

“I am wonderfully and beautifully made”

“I have everything I need”

  • Notice what you felt in your body and your initial gut reaction. Was it comforting, anxiety-producing, annoyingly over-used, or did it make you a little defensive. All of those reactions are valid. I learned today’s practice from a TikTok account by Christine Gibson. She called the practice “iffirmations.” You add the phrase “what if” to the beginning of an affirmation. Pay attention to your body again as those same affirmations become iffirmations: 

“What if I am enough?”

“What if I deserve love?”

“What if I am wonderfully and beautifully made?”

“What if I have everything I need?” 

  • Notice again what you felt in your body and your initial gut reaction. That shift in language for some of you may plants seeds of possibility that feel true while affirmations sometimes feel like you’re trying to trick yourself into believing something. That flexibility of mental response can be very healing. Other phrases that people like using are “Imagine that” or “I am open to the possibility of.” I invite you to (respond in the chat) and try writing an affirmation from a favorite source of wisdom, God, the Bible, or others that you could try as an “iffirmation”? Notice how the shift in language feels in your body. You may like affirmations more and that’s totally okay. But What if an iffirmation engaged your curiosity? I invite you to (respond in the chat). 
  • Chat question: What is an affirmation from a favorite source of wisdom, God, the Bible, or others that you could try as an “iffirmation”? 

 

  • Thank you so much for sharing your ‘iffirmations’ and I encourage you to keep playing with this practice. 

Rainbow Prayer 

  • Now I’d like to share a prayer that has excerpts from the Prayer for Pride Flag Raising by the Rainbow Pastor and the Rainbow Christ Prayer by Patrick Cheng and Kittredge Cherry as well as my own prayers. I’ll share an image of the pride flag for reference. Pray with me. 
  • Rainbow Christ, you embody all the colors of the world.  Inspire us to remember the values expressed in the rainbow flag of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual community.

 

  • Red is for life, the root of spirit.  Living Christ, you are our Root.  Free us from shame, and grant us the grace of healthy pride so we can explore, question, and follow our own inner truths. With the red stripe in the rainbow, we give thanks that God created us just the way we are. 
  • Orange is for healing, the mending needed desperately in individuals and our community as a whole. Let us heal one another through love, radical acceptance, and coming alongside each other in our hurts, losses, and burdens. Lord, may we lay those hurts and burdens at your feet and allow the wholeness of community and self to be reconciled.  With the orange stripe in the rainbow, be a balm to our wounds and sorrows. 
  • Yellow is for sunlight, the brilliant light of queer joy. The smile on Your face shining down upon us. Interconnected Christ, you are our Wisdom, creating and sustaining the universe. With the yellow stripe in the rainbow, may we feel Your radiant light reflected in our innermost beings. 
  • Green is for nature, the grounding of life. May we seek nature to commune with you and all of creation. May we see ourselves reflected in the beauty and purposefulness of every rock, raindrop, and leaf. With the green stripe in the rainbow, connect us with others and with all of creation.
  • Blue is for serenity, the sense of tranquility and calm that comes with knowing you are exactly as God made you to be. God knew your true name when you were in the womb and They smile as you come into your own. Serenity is also inviting the most marginalized into an open and welcoming community. Liberator Christ, you are our Voice, speaking out against all forms of oppression. Free us from apathy, and grant us the grace of activism. With the blue stripe in the rainbow, let us find peace within our Body-Spirit and motivate us to call for justice. 
  • Purple is for spirit, the union of one’s spirit with the Holy Spirit and the spirit of community. Lord, may we find connection with you and one another. May we offer love and compassion and encourage those around us to live their authentic lives. Fill our hearts with untamed compassion for all beings. With the purple stripe in the rainbow, may our spirit find rest and encouragement in our truths, one another, and the Holy Spirit. 
  • These colors come together to make one rainbow, one symbol of Pride. Free us from rigid categories and grant us the grace of interwoven identities.  With the rainbow, lead us to experience the whole spectrum of life. 
  • Bless our pride in who we are, in all our diversity, as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and questioning people, as an expression of your creative love. Bless our differences that we may draw strength from them. 
  • Bless our celebration that it may show our joy in living and hope. Bless those for whom it takes great courage to be present, that they may not feel alone. Bless those for whom this is one in a long series of Pride celebrations, as they continue to teach us about courage and wisdom. 
  • Bless our calls for equality as we seek justice for all your people. Bless those who support us and are also working for freedom and justice. Bless each of us here with your presence, and our presence, one with another. 
  • Amen. 

I invite you to join me in a breath prayer. We will do it twice together.

Breath Prayer

Inhale: I am enough

Exhale: God blesses me. (2x)

I’ll pass it over to Noelle for a time of honoring queer ancestors.

Remembrance 

Tom is also going to sing a song he wrote as we reflect on those who came before us. 

 

Know me. Know me.

I am all that you are longing for.

All that you desire, everything you need, and so much more.

I am the God who called you. I am the God who rescued you.

I am the God who sets your heart on fire.

I am the God who walks with you.

I am the God who talks with you.

I am your God, and this is my desire,

that you will know me, know me, know me. I am your God.

Know me.

 

Breath Prayer 

Inhale: We are of our ancestors.

Exhale: May their stories speak through us. (2x)

Prayer: https://sojo.net/articles/prayer-my-lgbtq-kin-community

I’d like to share a prayer from Rev. Megan Rohrer called “A Prayer for my LGBTQ Kin.”

Shepherding God,

Be palpably present with us when we dance,

                                                                 snuggle,

                                                                        and enjoy the sensations

                                                                             of the creation you declare good.

Help us to name, define, redefine, deconstruct, claim, and properly pronoun our fabulousness. We commit to properly naming and pronouning the fabulousness of others.

Dwell with us,

     both when we are able to articulate our pride for ourselves and others

     and when we get stuck in a cacophony of negativity, bodily shame, or unjust laws.

When we are tired, weary, and exhausted,

     grant us the rest and renewal we need to keep on marching, advocating, and living openly.

When we have all that we need to live fully,

     help us to share with others who lack.

And when it feels like time is moving too slow,

     or change is not possible,

     take the lead

     block the wind

     refresh our hearts

     distract us with passionate love

     give us purposeful work

     anything that helps those on the edge to choose life

          to get through the month, the week, or the hour

          to move time a bit closer

               to the safety, acceptance, and love we all need and deserve.

When we cannot hear you,

     scream louder,

     love more tangibly

     silence violent voices of opposition

     whip advocates into a frenzy

     fill us with memories of times when we felt closer to you

     and love us anyway

          as we were

          as we are

          as we are becoming

          as we wish we could be in a safer time and place

          as you know us

          as we seek to know ourselves.

Remind us of the victories our ancestors won,

     with their storytelling and coming out,

     with their lobbying and work from the inside,

     with bricks and sugar shakers thrown through windows of oppression

Help us to live and act with bravery,

     working within and without,

     educating ourselves and those around us,

     so that we can do the work generations to come need us to do.

Stir up our hearts,

     so that we always remain on our tiptoes

     looking for additional ways

     we can remove the barriers unjustly placed in front of our LGBTQ kin,

     especially those embodying multiple intersectional identities.

Make us plumbers,

     capable of unclogging all the places

     where the ever-flowing stream of justice has been dammed up or clogged.

Shepherding God,

Be palpably present with us when we dance,

                                                                 snuggle,

                                                                      and enjoy the sensations

                                                                            of the creation you declare good.

 

Amen.

Cole Arthur Riley 

In the words of poet and writer, Cole Arthur Riley:


“For those who were taught to hate their queerness:

For those who still have to hide to be safe:

If you still haven’t said it out loud:

If you already know your beauty:

God is proud of you.

God is proud of you.”

Murray will now be leading us in a scripture reading

Ephesians 3:16-19 (New Living Translations) 

16 I pray that out of God’s glorious riches that God may strengthen you with power through God’s Spirit in your inner being,

17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,

18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,

19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

The love of God is abundant, multi-dimensional, and it is what has given you – your fullness, wholeness and uniqueness. God is so proud of who you are. 

Breathe with me two times,

Inhale: God is proud of me.

Exhale:  God is proud of me. (2x)

Now Lee is going to lead us in a time of communion.

Communion 

We will now move to a time of communion. 

Where we give thanks for the presence of God  – God’s presence that is not at a distance –  but intimately in our lives – as intimately as our own flesh/skin.

God gifted us with bodies and through them we come to know God:

Through touch.

Through taste.

Through struggle.

Through rest.

In God’s love for us and for all creatures and creations, God took on skin like ours, entangling, forever, the Holy with our flesh. God showed us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we love through our bodies, we seek justice for bodies, we live out our faith in these bodies – not despite them.

Jesus took care and rest of his own body – he fed people, healed people, ate with people. 

He met the physical and spiritual needs of bodies.

And when his own body was threatened by political and religious execution, he turned to the Table. He sought, first, in his hour of need, to share in a meal with his friends.

On the night of his arrest, he gathered around a table with his companions.

He took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said,

“This is my body which is given for you.

Do this in remembrance of me.”

He did the same with the cup after the supper, saying,

“This cup that is poured out as a sign of the new covenant.”

A new way forward with love. 

The body of God was crucified.

And the body of God was resurrected.

Not only in spirit, but in flesh.

God has shown us that our bodies are good, holy, precious, and full of possibility.

Let me pray for us:  

Spirit of God, Come, bless this bread and this cup, so that we can encounter your presence as we touch, and we taste, and we feel. As we come to the table, may we become one body. And may we be relentless pursuers of your Kin-dom, until every body has its needs met, every body is recognized as beloved, and every body is treated with dignity and care. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

Right now, wherever you are, grab something to eat and drink as you are ready. 

Know that even digitally everyone is welcome to the table. There are no prerequisites at Reservoir for participating in communion. 

Come to the table. 

Closing Moment– Breath Prayer  

Inhale: God, you know my name.

Exhale:  God, you are proud of me. (2x or 3x)

What to Do with People You Can’t Stand

So, I was talking with a friend of mine a while back and he said, “So, you’re a pastor, can I ask you for advice about this thing going on?” and I said: Sure. I can’t promise I’ll have any great advice, but sure.

And he says: Well, I have a brother, and we’re very different. We don’t live too far away but we don’t see each other often either. Anyway, we had this really hard conversation the other week, and I’m not sure what to do about it. So I asked: What happened?

And he told me that his brother believes in a lot of conspiracy theories, mostly about politics but lots of other things too, and one of the things was that his brother had a lot of theories about the government and the COVID vaccines and the whole pandemic too. And they had kind of mocked him the past couple of years whenever he took any COVID precautions.

But his brother had reached out because his wife and him had both gotten COVID and one of them actually got very sick. And they missed some work and had some medical bills and were in a bind, and they were asking my friend for some favors to help them out. 

And my friend told me he was really torn, because he helps his brother out all the time, but part of him felt that his brother and sister in law got what they deserved this time, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to come to their rescue. Maybe they had to learn a lesson or something.

So he told his brother: Listen, I’m sorry, I can’t help you out this time.

And his brother got really angry with him. He yelled at him, told him he was an awful person, swore at him, including one bit I’m not going to quote here but just say that it was hate speech, totally degrading. And then my friend’s brother hung up on him.

And my friend asked me: So, did I do the right thing in not helping him out? And what should I do next?

And I thought to myself as I usually do: I have no idea. I mean: who am I to know?

So I just said: Did your brother really call you those things? And he said: Yeah, it’s OK, though, I’m used to it. And I said: No, it’s not OK. I’m so sorry you heard your brother speak to you that way. I’m so sorry you had to hear that from your own family.

And my friend said thanks and then said these words that really struck me. He said,

You know, Steve, I’m just so angry with my brother, not just for how he acted in that phone call, but for the person he’s become. I’m so angry. And I feel kind of disgusted by him too, like I just have contempt for the kind of person he is. 

And so I said:

Well, I don’t know if you’re right or not to not help him out. It certainly sounds fair that you didn’t. I mean you’re not obligated to. And I don’t know what you should do next either, but is it OK if I make an observation?

And my friend said:

Yeah, of course.

So I said to him:

If I were you, I’d stick with the anger you feel. I’d be angry too. And maybe the anger will teach you something, or the anger will give you some energy for whatever you want to do next. I’d roll with that anger for now. But the part of you that feels disgust or contempt, like it’s hard to even see your brother like a person anymore, I’d be careful with that. I’d try to kind of separate that from the anger, and see if you can let that part go.

And we talked a little more about what that might look like, and as we did so, I learned, or relearned, so much from that distinction. My friend, with all his emotional intelligence, had noticed that he felt anger for his brother, but he also felt this other thing on top of the anger. He felt disgust or contempt, like he wasn’t just mad at this brother but looked down on him as worthless, as detestable, scum, trash, whatever. 

And those aren’t the same thing. One of those – angerhas the chance to be productive – to teach us about our fears or the harm we’re facing, or to help us make changes or make boundaries to protect ourselves. But the other – contempt – doesn’t add anything good to us or our relationships. Contempt is a kind of armor that doesn’t protect or heal. It just makes us proud and smug and rather than building boundaries that protect, it just estranges and eliminates, and it brings shame – none of which heal anything in us or them or really do any good at all.

Today we’re talking about people we can’t stand and about the difference between anger and contempt, and how to lean into one and not the other.

It’s part of a little spring mini-series we’ve called How to Heal the World about mending and repair, about leaning into the Christian notion of salvation for ourselves and our world in really practical ways. 

I want to go next to some really famous words from Jesus on this subject. These words are often read or quoted, but still rarely applied. They’re from this famous collection of teachings of Jesus on how to live, called the Sermon on the Mount.

They go like this.

Matthew 7:1-5 (Common English Bible)

1 “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.

2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.

3 Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?

4 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?

5 You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

Jesus says that in general,

What you put out into the world tends to be what comes back to you.

If you’re friendly, cheerful, kind in your disposition to others, you are more likely to draw that kind of attitude back toward yourself.

Treat people with judgment, criticism, and contempt, and you are likely to elicit that kind of thing in them as well. Look at my friend’s brother – in his frustration and shame, he wasn’t just angry, he yelled and swore and hurled hate speech at my friend. And the first thing my friend felt back was contempt and judgment of his own. 

We can live by grace, or we can live by judgment. 

We can cut people down, or we can be healers. But we can’t be both.

You know, I think our resistance to this teaching of Jesus, our troubles with contempt, are most obvious in our public life. 

SNL had this sketch a couple months back about three couples out for dinner trying to talk about the COVID pandemic. And even though broadly speaking they had similar views, took similar precautions, the joke of the sketch was that they just couldn’t have the conversation. It was just too tense, there were too many landmines.

Say the wrong thing, even wonder out loud with the wrong question, and you’ll be held in contempt like you’re a science-hating, pandemic causing fool. I remember feeling this contempt in myself once inside this Dunkin Donuts. There was an indoor mask mandate in my community, and I went into Dunkin, and I was paying attention to who was wearing their mask, and who wasn’t, and was wearing it kind of hanging down below the nose, or below the mouth, or you know, below the chin.

And at the time, I was feeling tense, like I don’t want to be in this store, I think I’ll wait outside while they make my coffee. But honestly, I was thinking about who was doing what with their masks and writing stories in my head about why some of them were as thoughtless or careless or ignorant as I felt they were. And I thought: these are bad people here. In just a few seconds, my fear had metastasized in me into judgment and contempt. 

Toward the end of the skit on SNL, when people are sharing their true feelings, there’s this laugh line when someone says: To be honest, when an anti-vaxxer gets Covid, I feel happy! 

And someone’s like: No you don’t. But the joke’s there because the feeling is. 

We’ve seen this kind of contempt writ large in our politics. Our last president seemed to hold everyone but himself and his fans in contempt. His words sometimes were just a stream of mocking takedowns, schoolyard bullying kinds of lies and mean, cheap insults again and again. 

He’d realized early in his campaign that fear and contempt can rally people to action. One of the most effective ways to mobilize and aggressive “us” is to find a set of enemies we can call “them” and make them out to be as scary and stupid and contemptable as possible. 

But it wasn’t just him, right? His opponent in 2016 had that fundraising speech that went viral where she said you could put Trump’s supporters in two baskets, one basket of people who are worthy of compassion or pity maybe, and another basket of people she called the “basket of deplorables.” The homophobes, the xenophobes, the misogynists, and the racists. 

And I mean, at some level, I get it. Homophobic behavior, racist action and all that are cancers. 

But how many people have been shamed into changing? Who has ever said to their judge:

Thank you for showing me how contemptible I am. Now I’ll do better. 

No one wants to be put in a basket. 

Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.

Contempt is the curse that keeps on cursing. It only pushes more shame and more contempt into the world.

This gets us in our private lives too. 

The past couple years I’ve had a couple important relationships in my life that have really gone south, that have just gotten much, much harder. They were perfect before, but they’re damaged now. For various reasons, though, these are people I don’t want to just walk away from. I want to stay in their lives, and they in mine. 

But it’s been hard work. 

With one of these people, I endured just a string of criticisms from them, in interaction after interaction. And most of them seemed baseless to me, really unfair. But one of them struck home, spoke to a way I’d really hurt them. And I thought: it’d be fair for me to apologize for that, it’d be right to do so. 

So I wrote this apology letter, and I showed it to a person I trust for feedback before I sent it. And they were like 80% of the letter is really great.

But that bit in the beginning where you say you have a lot of reason to be angry with them, and they’ve really done you wrong, but there’s this one thing you want to apologize for, so here we go… Why do you need to keep that bit in there? What’s that doing for you?

And I was like, well, it’s the truth. I want to apologize but I want them to know they’re wrong too, that really, they’re mostly wrong. 

And my friend said maybe so, but if you leave that in, what do you think they’ll remember about this letter, what will be their takeaway. And I thought: oh, it won’t be the apology anymore, it’ll be my contempt for them. Like you’re awful, by the way, but oh, yeah, I have this one thing to apologize for. And I thought: that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

So I cut that part out. It hurt my pride a little bit to do so. But I cut it out. And I’m glad I did. 

The Bible’s got this other line that I think builds on Jesus’ teaching on judgment and contempt. It’s from this little letter to the Ephesians, where the author is talking to a community of faith about how to follow Jesus, how to be people of grace, people who can love each other and get along together, even amongst differences. And at one point it says:

Ephesians 4:26-27 (Common English Bible)

26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.

27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.

So anger is not sin, because you can be angry without sinning. But in our anger, dangers can arise. We can make room for the devil, the satan, the accuser.  

Early in our marriage, Grace and I tried to take this teaching very rigidly. Like most of the too rigid ideas we had together, I’m pretty sure this was my fault. But we had this idea, or I had this idea I foisted on to us, that it was critical that if we had any anger toward one another, if we had any unresolved conflict, we had to make peace, we had to resolve it thoroughly before we went to bed. 

After all, the scriptures say:

Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 

I never realized, come to think of it, that the words actually talk about the sunset, not going to bed. It’s weird how even our most rigid ideas we think come from the Bible aren’t actually there. I was convinced this principle – don’t go to sleep with your spouse until you’ve resolved your conflict – came from this verse, but that’s not even what it says.

Anyway, what trying to apply this principle mainly did was create a series of late night conflicts about conflict. Like how are we going to resolve this and make peace when to be honest, we just were ready to yet. Maybe one of us just needed to be angry for a bit. Or maybe one of us needed some time to think. 

Later, it became clear to me that this scripture is more about the course your anger and criticism take, not about whether or not you can eliminate before sundown, or bedtime. 

And I think it’s helped us to chill out a bit, let go of some of my rigid, silly rules. 

You know, this insight is affirmed by some of the experts in couples work. There are these folks, the Gottmans, they’re got an institute for healthy marriages and relationships called the Gottman Institute, and they’re like the premier voice on this stuff. 

And in their research with couples, they’ve identified what they call the four horsemen of relationships, the four forces that tear down marriages. They’re criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling (which means withdrawing all the time from conflict), and contempt.

And the worst of the four horsemen, the most lethal, in their experience, is contempt. 

Because contempt attacks a person’s self, with insult or abuse. Contempt says:

You are worthless. I’d be happy if you got sick. You’re a deplorable. You’re dead to me. 

It’s contempt, not anger, that leads us into sin. Contempt truly does make room for the devil. Jesus said once:

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I come that you may have life, and life abundant. 

Friends, when I talk about the devil or the thief here, I’m not talking about an invisible boogeyman, or a pitchfork-wielding, angry, horned red devil. I’m talking about any forces inside of us, among us that steal, kill, and destroy, that rob us of connection and life, that tear down our lives and relationships, and society. 

And our persistent habits of judgment and contempt are high on the list of these thieving forces. 

Jesus is like

Don’t do it, there’s a better way.

We’ll come back to his words, but here’s how the Gottmans put it. Their antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation, to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and to find and express gratitude for positive actions. More reasons to build up those gratitude habits we were talking about last week. 

Ruby Sales, who we talked about on Easter and the week before, put it this way. She said:

You know, in our world, it’s easier to think about who and what we hate, then who and what we love. It’s easier to think about who and what we hate, then who and what we love. 

My friend, my colleague Ivy, reminded me of this wisdom a few weeks ago, and it was right as I was getting ready to have another hard conversation in one of those difficult relationships in my life. 

So I took it to heart, I asked God for help in remembering what I love about this person. It was easy to think of what I was angry about, what I feel critical of, what unchecked would just again and again turn to contempt in me. But I asked God for help to remember what I love and respect about this person. And things came to mind. And I spent time thinking about these things before our next conversation. And it made a big difference. It didn’t change anything in them right away, but it changed a lot in  me. 

Christena Cleveland put it this way.

When dealing with someone that makes you angry, that you might be inclined to hold in judgment or contempt, say a little prayer: May the image of God in me greet the image of God in you. It’s kind of what the Hindi word: namaste means. And it’s very much the wisdom of Jesus as well. 

May the image of God in me greet the image of God in you. May I see in my friend, my spouse, my family, and even in my enemy not just what I hate but what I love. 

This is a big way that we do what Jesus commands, that we take the splinter out of our own eye, and then seek to heal our neighbor’s sight. There are other sins, there are plenty of other splinters we’ve got my friends, but there are few that are as sharp and lethal, and as common and deep as judgment and contempt. 

If, with the help of God and friends, we can pull that contempt out of us, if we can see and treat others with the dignity that is their birthright too as a child of God, made in God’s image, then we’ll go a long way toward healing our relationships, healing ourselves, and healing the world.

I’d like us to close today with a practice on this. We’ll call this exercise Dropping The Stone.

It’s got five parts to it. We won’t just assign this one for homework, we’ll take a minute, if you’re willing to try it together.

Here’s how it’s going to work.

We’re going to take a few moments of silence now.

I invite you to close your eyes, if you’re willing, or at least turn your gaze away from me or anyone else, and think of a person that you feel anger or contempt toward.

And with a story from the life of Jesus in mind, one where he sees people wanting to throw stones at someone else and gets them to drop their stones, imagine the person at whom you wish you could throw a stone.

To whom do you feel anger or contempt? Take a minute, let the name come to mind. See their face.

Now ask yourself:

What do I feel toward this person? Why am I angry? What is the source of the contempt?

Imagine that all that anger and contempt is inside a stone in your hand. Validate that for a minute. 

OK, try the third step now.

As you imagine this person, as you call them to mind, as you see them, ask yourself:

What do I love about them?

And focus on that quality.

And if you can’t think of anything you love about them, ask yourself,

How would it be possible to love them? What is the good in them? How do they bear the image of God? 

Now, in your mind, put your stone down.

Say to God:

God, I would like to set aside the contempt. I’d like to be free of it….       I can be angry, but I will not harm. I will not seek revenge. I will not judge. I will not seek to rob my fellow human of their dignity. 

And lastly, ask yourself, ask God,

Free of my contempt, what will I do next instead? What will I say or do with this person? 

The Overwhelming Waters

Welcome again to our second week looking for Water of Life together. Just a reminder that if last week’s talk and guide on baptism intrigued you, you can contact Angel@reservoirchurch.org for interest on the upcoming info sessions about kids baptism and dedication and me – steve@reservoirchurch.org for interest in or questions about adult baptism. 

Now this week, we look for help in the things that threaten and overwhelm us. Water may hydrate, cleanse, refresh, and restore us. But water can also flood and drown and destroy. In the scriptures, springs, wells, rivers, give life. But large bodies of water – they are associated with chaos and terror. In fact, the very first line of the whole Bible evokes old myths of the watery, chaotic depths from which God first created life. 

This week, in our sermon and in our guide, we look at how God can meet us when we or those we love are overwhelmed, facing danger, threat, or stress. 

After all, we are watching a tyrant’s violent war play out in Ukraine. It’s happening far from us. There’s little we can do, but still, we are bearing witness. And it’s heartbreaking, it’s frightening, and it is enraging to watch. 

This is on top of our season of interruption, chaos, division, and loss we’ve been in due to the global pandemic and more. 

And that on top of movements to expose racial violence, gender and sexual violence, violence toward LGBTQ kids and youth. Movements for critical, long overdue change, but movements that stir and expose trauma and trouble as they do so. 

And on top of that, we have our own personal lives – some thriving and happy, others not so much. Some of us are facing overwhelming trauma and suffering ourselves. And even those of us who aren’t bear witness to it in others near and far, again and again.

What do we do? In threat and stress, what is the Water of Life way of faith, hope, and love? How do we find God? How do we find anchors, peace, companionship in the overwhelm? 

That’s what we explore this week. Let’s read today’s passage. 

John 6:16-21 (New Revised Standard Version)

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,

17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.

18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.

19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.

20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

What is going on here?

The storm we get. The Sea of Galilee is really a huge lake, not a sea, and some of these guys were professional fishermen, but still…I remember once as a teenager being in a canoe at dusk in the middle of a lake much smaller than this one. And the skies darkened as a sudden storm swept in and we heard a crack of thunder. I have never in my life paddled as hard as I did then to get off that lake before lightning hit. Storms are terrifying. 

But then there’s Jesus, walking on the sea. 

What in the world is this? Three out of the four gospels have a story of Jesus walking on water. They’re kind of famous. But what in the world do they mean?

Truthfully, we don’t know. 

A little aside here. Many Chrisitians are quite confident they can tell you exactly what different Bible passages mean, not just for them, but for everyone, for all time. They hold to what they consider a common sense or literal interpretation and think those are always correct. Or they think what their pastor or favorite Christian author or their slice of the Chrisitan tradition has taught and assume that must be right. 

Me, I love knowing that different people have wrestled with these biblical texts and come away with some different ideas of what to think about them and what to do with them. I think it’s beautiful to engage a tradition and a set of holy texts that are rich and deep enough that there’s always more to learn, always more to think about, even argue about.

This is in keeping with this church’s core value of humility – that when it comes to Jesus and the scriptures and how to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves, we are always learners, not experts. 

We are disciples – students – of the way of Jesus, not masters. 

So, when it comes to these walking on water texts, there are lots of readings here too. 

Some people think Jesus – through his divine powers – suspended the laws of nature for himself and walked across the top of the water, either to comfort and help his struggling friends or perhaps to prove that he was God in the flesh.

Some people think these texts have like an epic, legendary quality to them. There are stories of sea walking in the tales of a number of great leaders, including Alexander the Great, and Xerxes, king of Persia. In the time of Christ, apocalyptic literature that used symbols to capture deep truth, was very popular. Maybe this is that kind of story.

Some people even think the disciples were half mistaken. I mean John says they were just about back on land when they saw Jesus. Maybe with the darkness and fog of the storm, Jesus was walking to them along the shore, and they thought he was out on the sea.

I have my own guesses and wonderings about what might have happened in this history behind this account, but it’s really not the point of the sermon, so I’ll keep my own wonderings about this to myself today, like Jesus’ own momma, pondering them in my heart.

 Here’s the takeaway, though, for us. No matter what historically happened behind this memory of the disciples, John describes this as what’s called a theophany. A theophany is an appearance of the divine. It’s something so beautiful, so moving that in the eye of the beholder, they believe that they are experiencing God. 

It’s not about science. It’s not about trying to prove God’s presence. We can’t do that one way or the other. 

And it may not even be about what God is doing any differently. Often a theophany is about us seeing or sensing differently, about a deeper seeing, a deeper understanding, a deeper attention to what’s true and real, that God has been there all along, but just now we are catching it.

John gives us a number of clues that for the disciples this was a theophany, an awareness of God with them. One is Jesus’ words. When they’re like: who or what is this coming to us? Jesus says: It is I. Literally in Greek, he says, “I am.” Which is one translation of the Hebrew, personal name for the divine, Yahweh:  I am that I am. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am” again and again. In me, Jesus is saying, you are experiencing what God is like.

And there’s the whole presence over the waters. Again and again, John tells and retells parts of the creation story from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. And Genesis starts with the spirit of God moving, flying across the surface of earth’s primordial waters, bringing order and beauty out of chaos. Just like Jesus is here.

John knows, Jesus knows that when we’re terrified, when we face the chaos and stress of threats and suffering, we need theophany. We need to know in a deeper way that God is here with us – water of life over the overwhelming water we fear will overtake us. 

I’ve had my moments when it seemed like life would overtake me. Abuse, trauma, loss, fears. Like you all, some hard moments in recent times too.

But as I prepared for today, two things came to mind.

One, I didn’t really feel like talking about myself more today.

And two, I thought of people I know and respect throughout this community whose losses and traumas have been immense and who have found ways through them, are finding ways through them still. 

And I wanted to learn from their stories, and share what I learned with you. So I reached out to eight people in our community who I knew had faced the overwhelming waters of loss and chaos and asked them, what gave you hope? Or what gave you peace? Or how did you keep the faith or just keep going? 

I told them I’d keep them anonymous for today but that I’d share some of what I learned from their stories.

Let me tell you first, friends, that in this community, you are surrounded by amazing people – amazingly courageous, resilient, faithful people, what the Bible calls a great cloud of witnesses.

These people I reached out to, they have faced untimely deaths, unjust imprisonment. They’ve lived through divorce, abuse, cancer, loss of children, loss of homeland. So when I talk about things learned while facing overwhelming stress and threat, these folks know the real deal. 

And they all responded to me with honest, vulnerable, wise reflection. I’m so grateful for each of them. They honor us with their stories. And I’m honored again to share this community with them, and with each of you. 

The first thing I learned was that no one thing gets us through. I can’t mesh these eight stories into one. Every experience was different. Each person has our own pains and our own ways of getting through it. 

But there are some themes I heard. I’d asked each person:

What gave you hope? What gave you peace? Or just what kept you going? What helped you keep the faith? 

And what was interesting was that people didn’t have much to say about hope and peace, especially not about peace. None of them, not one, talked about a deep peace in the middle of suffering. One person told me explicitly that he had no peace in his worst moments. Another told me there was no belief that gave them hope or peace. None. 

I wondered in asking about peace in particular, if I was asking the wrong question. Sometimes peace while overwhelmed just comes to us, but often it doesn’t. Sometimes, when we’re overwhelmed, we’ve got to just fight to hang on when peace can’t be found.

If you’re overwhelmed and you don’t have peace, that might be just fine. It’ll come back to you someday, but sometimes we just can’t find it. We’ve got to struggle through without for a bit. 

But when it came to faith, people had a lot to say. I mean, a lot. 

Some people talked about explicit faith in God.

One person talked about memorial stones ancient Israelites laid down as they made it through hard times, thinking: they didn’t die. They lived and learned to thrive, and I can too. Remembering was powerful to other people too, remembering markers in their lives when they were sure God was good to them, helping them remember that surely they would know that again in the future. 

Another person told me they took solace that God was not the source of their problems. She said:

God wasn’t teaching me a lesson. God didn’t want to hurt me. God is on my side, seeing me through. 

Another person wrote to me about her mother’s lessons of faith she carried. She wrote:

My mother taught me at a very young age to listen to God’s whisper. So I have learned that even when I am crying out loud when I have experienced loss, I have to be careful to listen to what God is whispering. It has been a challenge for me because my pain and outcry sometimes is so loud that I can not even feel myself. But what listening to God’s whisper has taught me is God is listening, and that and only that has given me hope even in the midst of it all. 

For some, their own faith was hard to hold onto, but others showed up with faith for them, just when they were running out.

One friend talked about phone calls from his brother telling him to hang on, coming just when he had run out of hope. Another person talked about friends and mentors at church and people that believed in her and loved her when she didn’t have faith, love, and belief for herself.

And then there was one more kind of experience I heard again and again, which I’m calling a kind of faith too.

One person found my questions about hope, peace, even faith challenging. He wrote to me, 

There is a certain estrangement that I felt from God, mainly because I felt cursed. And it would have been hard to convince me intellectually that I’m loved when I had lost so much. And that seemed unjust and cruel, something God might have stopped any time he might have wanted to. 

More conventional faith in God sometimes falls out of reach when we’re suffering. 

This person let their faith fall apart where he needed to, figuring parts of it would return, as I think parts have. But they said, I did keep going, didn’t I? I had friends that loved me, and that gave me meaning. I didn’t think God loved me, but strangely I was still determined to try to love others as Jesus did, as Jesus taught. That seemed like a path forward to the life I needed. And I found myself again and again grateful for all the small things, grateful for the lights in the darkness, so to speak.

Even as his faith failed, the person that faith had formed him into carried him. He knew his life, others’ lives still deeply mattered and were worth investing in. 

This hope, this conviction that no matter what, we still matter. Others still matter, this world matters. Life still matters. I call this faith too. Because it’s something that matters so much to God, for us to know God matters, but also that this world matters, others matter, we matter. 

To hold onto that is its own kind of deep, strengthening faith. 

What I heard from all my friends, though their experiences may be different than mine, matches the worst of what’s carried me in all my worst troubles. 

That in all that is overwhelming, we can still know three things.

  1. That God is here too. God is always here.
  2. That we matter to God. And
  3. There is always a way forward.

God is here.

I matter to God.

There is always a way forward. 

This is what we learn from theophanies. Whether it’s Jesus walking on the waters, or a brother calling us right when we’d run out of hope, or a pastor we’ve never met visiting us in prison, or the memories of Bible stories and childhood faith, when God appears to us, it’s not always to change our feelings. It’s certainly not God trying to make some point to impress us. It’s God again assuring us that God is here, that we matter, and that there is a good way forward for us today, wherever we are. 

This is my prayer for each of you who’s overwhelmed, for everyone you love who is overwhelmed, and for every Ukrainian resident today who suffers the loss and terror of war, that we will know God is here, that we matter, and there is a way forward for us today.

We’re going to close with a short prayer practice we’ll encourage throughout the week in the guide, but before we do that, one other invitation for you.

If you’re not overwhelmed right now, or even if you are overwhelmed by parts of life, but you’re not in trauma, put out a stroller.

We’ll see a picture here. 

https://petapixel.com/2022/03/08/photo-of-strollers-left-at-polish-border-for-ukrainian-mothers-goes-viral/

 Here’s what I mean by that. 

War makes refugees. As has been true in Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, today Ukraine, millions have fled their homelands seeking safety. And throughout Eastern Europe, we’ve seen these pictures of moms leaving strollers at railway stations, so Ukranian moms who’ve been carrying their children for days, for miles, could place them down safely upon arrival.

It’s a beautiful gesture of love and solidarity and hospitality, which is what everyone suffering pain and loss needs.

Not advice, not being saved or fixed. But hospitality – making space for their body and their story, and a little loving help and solidarity, being with them and making it just a little easier to bear. 

Anytime you know someone personally suffering loss, anytime you hear about it around the world, put out a stroller. Or however that metaphor applies to you.

And then when it’s your time, sit with God in it, knowing God sees, God hears, God knows how big this is to you, and God is glad to be with you in it.

This is a form or journalling we invite you too this week each day, to think of anything that causes you stress, any loss or pain and to call it to mind, knowing God is with you, and to ask God how it is that God pays attention to you, how it is that God empathizes with you and is present with you. 

Let’s try that now for a moment.

We’ll hear a bit of the music Matt has written for the season, and I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and call to mind something that causes you stress or pain.

-I see you.

-I hear you.

-I know how big this is to you.

-I’m glad to be with you in this.

Love is…Mussing Up Someone’s Hair

I’m coming to you from my house, pre recording this sermon because, surprise, I’ve been exposed to Covid. Hope you are all well, and getting through these times with some sustained energy. 

We just started a series called Love is… and all I can think of is, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me~” Sorry, it’s an old movie reference, called A Night at the Roxbury, if you don’t get it.  

The question is legit though. It is THE question. What is love? 

When I started developing crushes, this was a very important question for me. 

I remember being in the 4th grade, and there was this kid named Robbie, who was just so cute, even gave me a hand written Christmas card, and no we weren’t doing an activity in class where we had to write a card to everyone, it was just to me. 

I got the card and it said, “I stole this card from my sister. Merry Christmas!” 

And I thought, is this love? 

Often when I had questions, I’d go to the library to find answers. And there was this one book that I still remember to this day, that guided me along these heart wrenching times, called ‘Love is… walking hand in hand’ from the Charlie Brown and the Peanut gallery. Each page gave me real examples of what love was, that were clear and defined. One page said that “Love is meeting someone by the pencil sharpener.” And that year I sharpened my pencil a lot.

Today I want to specifically talk about, as pastor Ivy showed us in our Spiritual Practice, Love is Mussing Up Someone’s Hair. 

I saw this kind of thing happen during Christmas, with one of my friend’s kid, a 10-year-old boy who has selective mutism, who didn’t really know how to interact with my son, a 1-year-old baby. And he would just come up and touch his hair, it was so cute. 

I’ve also been watching this reality dating show on Netflix. Don’t judge me, it’s not as trashy as you’d think, being a reality show. It’s called Single’s Inferno, where a bunch of single people are placed on an island, kind of like Survivor show style.

They’re sleeping in a tent and have bare minimum to eat and not much to do except date. They have some games and prompts that if you win, you get to pick your partner to go to “paradise” with, which is literally a hotel and resort called Paradise, and you get to stay in a suite room with room service with the date of your choice for one night. 

And it’s so hilarious and cute how small things matter so greatly when there isn’t much else to do except think about feelings for each other. When someone decides to sit next to someone at the bonfire, when someone takes a walk with this person as opposed to that person, or when someone touches someone’s hair while talking–the drama!

One guy starts falling for a girl because she said to him, “you look nice in pink. Pink is my favorite color.” Or another guy pointed out how cute it was that someone said to him, “hurry hurry go up!” while they were walking behind them on the stairs. But one of the biggest sacrifices one makes for love, or show of affection here is that they would rather stay in the Inferno (the island) rather than go to Paradise with another person. 

You know why I call myself Christian? Because I am enamored by God’s grand gesture of love. Pastor Ivy put it really well recently. She said,

“God comes to the edge of God’s own divinity and knocks on our human hearts and says, ‘May I come in?’ ” 

God decided to leave paradise, all that’s associated with being a divine being, gave it all up to be with us and one of us. 

Philippians 2 says that Jesus “Instead, gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position, was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form.” 

And when God decided to do this, I think God came to mess up our hairs a bit. God came into our space, got in our realm, and began to shake things up a bit. That’s what’s compelling to me about Jesus. Christian theology says,

What does God look like? It looks like Jesus, who came into this world as a helpless baby, born not in a palace but a manger, rode not on a high horse but a humble donkey, and instead of exercising all his might, humbled himself actually to death. 

Who is God? What does God do? Who is Jesus? What did Jesus do? There are many things we can say, that have been said, that Jesus died for our sins, or God saves us, or God protects or Jesus cares  or whatever. But at the end of the day, why, why did God do any of these things? 

1 Corinthians 13 talks about prophecies, fathoming mysteries and knowledge, and faith to move mountains, giving all I possess to the poor or surrendering bodies to the flames, and says all that is nothing, if you don’t have love.

All of theological debates can be ended with, God is love. God did all that because God loves you. Why do we care about justice, welcome the refugees, normalize pronouns to expand our concept of gender binary, include the outcast, why do we confess our sins, why do we gather together as a community, why do we bother to do any of these things, because of love! 

How have you been enamored by God’s love? There are many different kinds of love that can help us understand the love of God and romantic love is definitely a metaphor that’s used even in the Bible. Song of songs is all about love, sensuality, flirting, and even sexuality, and it’s been included in the Bible as a way for us to know God’s love for us.

So think about romantic relationships or love interests in your life. Think about your dating life. I think it’s interesting to think about dating love because love after marriage is one thing, but when you’re dating, things kind of heightened, like the show I was telling you about. Like first walking into their apartment. Or the first time you have a misunderstanding. At every step of the way you’re looking and aware, and asking, could this be love? There are seasons in our faith journey where our relationship with God can feel like that. You’re looking and seeing, God, are you speaking, are you initiating, do you love me?

  • And how have you involved God in your life?
  • How have you been open and vulnerable, inviting God into your messy room or seen you without your makeup?
  • Or have you ghosted God?
  • Have you invited God to parts of your life that you’re not so proud of?

Would you believe it if I said, God sees that insecure, dark, shamed parts of you and still loves you and moves closer to you? And calls you back for the next date? 

Or even if you’re thinking about a long-term relationship, after a long season of unemployment, depression, or physical illness, maybe even years after, they don’t go anywhere, but says I’m here, I love you, no matter what. 

How have you developed lovey dovey relationships with God? How has God messed up your hair and got all up in your space, every nook and cranny of your life? Do you even expect that from God? Or is God far off in a distance, perfect, and you only go near God when things are good? 

1 John 4:16 says that God is love.

Whatever you think love is, or love should be, or the love you hope for, that, that is God. 

And it goes on to say in

verse 19 We love because God first loved us.

20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a sibling is a liar. For whoever does not love their neighbors, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Because God loved us first, let us love one another. 

And what does it look like to love one another? Honestly, it’s really hard. 1 John and other New Testament writers wrote a lot about this, loving one another, because they ran into problems of actually not loving each other well! In Ephesians, Paul is writing to a church in Ephesus with some words of encouragement. But they weren’t just words of encouragement, they were pleas and discipline.

Chapter 4 starts with,

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

You don’t beg someone to do something when they’re already doing it. He was begging because they were acting up. He is petitioning them,

verse 2, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.

I want to spend the rest of our time talking about this 2nd verse and I’ll close. 

These were his tips and advice on how to get along, because this church, they weren’t getting along. The content of Paul’s letter lets us know that there were factions and divisions happening, external influences to the church that were causing problems, there were marital and family problems. He gives this wisdom to, please please you guys, I’m begging you, be humble, gentle, patient and bear one another. 

Now I don’t want to use this verse just to tell you, be more humble. Be more gentle. Always be patient! Because that’s not preaching, that’s nagging. And frankly, churches and systems have used this verse to tell people to know your role, get in line, and obey. Again I’d like to remind you that Paul didn’t write this as an instruction on how to love at all times. He was RESPONDING to conflict with these invitations.

And they are good advice generally. Yes, lead with humility and gentleness. Let’s be patient with each other. And then there are times when we need to be strong, confident, and urge one another. What I’m saying is that when you try to love one another, be a community and be a church, conflict is bound to happen. In fact I’ll go as far as to say, that’s what it means to love, to engage in conflict, to like I’ve been saying, mess up someone’s hair? That’s really vulnerable.

It’s getting entangled with one another. It’s sharing space to show your faults or weaknesses. It’s putting yourself out there and leaving the possibility of getting hurt. It’s caring too much that sometimes you might get disappointed or angry. Cause if you didn’t care? You’d be indifferent. If you didn’t care, it’d be perfect. If you didn’t love, your hair would be perfect and no one would mess it up. The most important thing that I want to point out from this verse actually is, BEAR. Bear one another. 

Bearing is holding up a burden. Bearing is tiring. Bearing means that there’s stress and struggle. It’s not free of difficulties. And you know what else it means? It means, you stay. You show up. You engage. You endure.

You know, showing up to church, even logging onto Youtube, it’s not ideal. It’s not the easiest thing sometimes. Engaging in a relationship, texting someone not knowing how they’ll respond, it’s work. 

I’ve been alluding to the metaphor of dating in talking about love today. Love is… Not breaking up. Even when things get hard. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not condemning breakups or divorce. Sometimes there is, when you’ve done all the humble, gentle, patient, and bearing, a time to give up. A time to heal. A time to change. And all that, we do it for love. Love of God, love of others, and love of self. That’s the work of love, trying and being there, showing up, again and again. 

We’re so isolated these days. It’s hard to engage even with church with all these restrictions in place with masks, can’t see any smiles, can’t sing sometimes, can’t even sit next to or hug someone. And well we definitely can’t mess up each other’s hair.  Maybe let’s find our way somehow, to figure out how to do that.

Let’s get in each other’s metaphorical spaces. Let’s call them. Let’s face a new person that you don’t know. Let’s Zoom as dreadful as it feels sometimes but it’s a nice tool. Facetime someone. Show up on someone’s porch even if it’s a sad wave from the stairs. One of you did that last week for me, dropped off a covid test and waved and it meant so much. 

I know many of you are tired of this pandemic. And I am too. But you know what, we’re strong. We’re resilient. We must bear through these times, and we can. To live is to endure. Endure one another. We must. 

So I beg you, much like Paul begged the Ephesians, let us bear one another. Let’s get in there, even if it’s easier to just check out. 

Steve’s been telling you about the relational meetings in last week’s email and through the blog in your inboxes. Check it out. Give it a try. Like downloading a dating app and creating your profile for the first time, it’s hard at first. But put love out there. You can fill out this form in the chat and get matched with someone. Maybe you’ll go to paradise together! You never know! May we, reach out, and love one another, because Jesus first loved us, with sweatpants and messy hair don’t care, and hop on a Zoom call. May we love one another, especially right now. 

Let me pray for us. 

Good and gracious God, do you see us right now? Maybe with a messy bun, no shave, maybe not even a shower. Do you see us, kneeling maybe in a pool of our own loneliness and depression tears, or at the top of our arrogance and ego? Do you see us busying about the best we can, as we work from home in this pandemic? Do you see us, afraid to get vaccinated no matter the pressures we feel? Do you see us, waiting on vaccination for our little ones? Do you see us? We cry out to you. 

The God of our friend Jesus, who has shown us that he sits with the outcast, eats with the poor, heals the broken, —be with us now. Sit with us. Heal us, we pray. May we be open to the love that you are pouring into us, open up and maybe even let that love overflow to this dry land we find ourselves in these days. Wash over us we pray these things in your love. Amen. 

Waiting For The Heart

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John 14:27

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I went to the mall on Black Friday. Don’t judge me. I really like Christmas decoration, Christmas music, that whole mood you get into, and honestly the mall really knows how to capitalize (pun intended) my vibe. The people, the chaos, it was crazy and I wanted to be a part of it! 

What’s the word you think of when you think about Advent? Is it peace? Is it joy? Or is it anxiety on how much money you’ll spend on presents? Or trying to figure out how to get all the work done in three weeks to be out for the holidays? Or the hecticness of planning gatherings and travels? I do feel like the world goes a little on crazy mode in this season. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday! 

I’ve noticed that more and more, many people struggle with anxiety and depression. Mental health has come up again and again as something that’s really impacting people…that need more wisdom, science and study, and care from ourselves, friends, and family. And something I’ve personally noticed (not based on a study or anything) but that folks older than me struggle more with depression and the younger generation more with anxiety.

It’s just something I noticed. And I almost get it. Like with all that’s going on in the world, the bombardment of news and information, worries like climate change, and social media, it almost seems to me like anxiety is the most natural response. 

Mental health workers and scientists talk about how the body has this reactionary response that is explainable. It’s the fight or flight. When we’re faced with something that is upsetting or dangerous, that is our body’s natural response. 

I’m actually so good at fight or flight. Well usually it’s flight, denial, ignore, and even numbing and not sure what I’m feeling. But if I know you pretty well and I feel close to you, I fight. My therapist tells me to breathe first, do some other activity, to bring at least my body back to the present moment. But honestly it’s so second nature because the world has trained me and my body to respond a certain way. And to change it, it takes extra effort to create new brain pathways to respond differently. And some extra time. 

In seminary I took a class on a thing called the Clearness Committee. It comes from the Quaker tradition, which could be considered a Christian denomination, (but not all Quakers see themselves as Christians). I thought at first from their name they must quake or shake, but actually their distinctive tradition is how they worship–which is: they sit in silence for an hour. Imagine if we just sat in silence for an hour here!

Sometimes they might say a word or so here and there but mostly they just sit, in silence. Clearness committee is like that, but more specifically a way to discern and get clarity. They do so by sitting in a circle (mostly in silence). It usually involves one person sharing something and then sitting in silence some more and everyone kind of helps bring clarity to the person’s situation.

And one of the things I learned in the clearness committee was that, after you hear the person’s story or dilemma, you can bring up questions, but when you think of a question, first you sit on it. See if it’s just your curiosity or if it’s going to help this person bring clarity. So you don’t ask questions for your own sake, like, if they were talking about doing a grad program, you don’t ask “oh where and what program?” You sit with the question and see and ask if you really really need to ask, not for yourself but for them.  Maybe a question like, “How would it impact you, or would it, if you didn’t do the program?” or something like that. 

And it was funny how many times I would sit with a question, and I don’t say it, and how it just floated away if it didn’t feel important. Or other times, I wouldn’t say it, and another person would ask the exact same question. You gave it time. You waited. You sat in silence. You sat in the unknown, in the dark. And that’s actually how you gained more clear answers. 

One of the themes for the season of Advent our church is focusing on is waiting and hoping. It’s the time that Mary was pregnant with Jesus. Joseph and Mary were figuring out their turbulent relationship with this new surprise child that Joseph apparently knew nothing about at first. Awkward and probably a scary time for this couple. Mary was probably worried as any expecting mother does, how am I going to be a mom?! A mother to a God at that?! What a crazy time! I’ll tell you, an expecting pregnant mom’s mind is crazier than the mall on Black Friday. 

With this theme of waiting, we ask you to give us art to adorn our Dome Gallery right outside of those glass doors. The preachers have been picking one to inspire us to use in our sermons and I want to share with you, Tom O’Toole’s photography work titled, The Hopeful Tree. 

He titled it the Hopeful Tree. 

It makes me tear up just looking at it. I mean look at it. Look how old it is. I don’t know how old it is, but it doesn’t look like a young tree. And without leaves, so many branches reaching out and extended, growing and searching. And what shadow it casts, a big one. I imagine what it’s been through. And I can also imagine what it will become, maybe in the next season, full and vibrant, green. 

But the thing I love the most about this is that Tom titled it the Hopeful Tree. That makes all the difference for me. It shows me his resilience, his faith, his trust in God and imagination, that even in the face of what it apparently looks like an empty stripped down tree, Tom’s showing me his vision of the future, one that’s filled with a rebellious hope. I imagine standing in front of this photo next to Tom, maybe without the title there, I wouldn’t have known he’s the one who took it. And I’d say, “hm, a tree.” And he goes, “no. a hopeful tree.” And just like, everything changes about the way I see this tree. 

And the thing is, that’s more powerful than seeing a vibrant luxurious tree and calling it hope. It’s almost like, that’s easy hope, even a not that big of a deal hope. Like, shrug, I’m hopeful. Like cheap hope. Of course there’s hope, it’s live and well and all good, no worries. But when you’ve been through hell, going through some dire situations, with no evidence or reason or signs of hope, and you cry, “I have hope.” That’s faith. 

One of my friends has been journeying through her dad’s cancer recovery. She shared with me the feelings of sadness seeing her tall strong vibrant Dad, who would often pick up building projects around the house, just a few years ago making a tree house for her kids, seeing him go through chemo and medication, and lately having lost so much weight she described as skin and bones. I got a chance to talk to her during Thanksgiving weekend.

She had just finished an emotional family meeting, a rare one where the husbands had to watch the kids, and she and her sister, mom and dad sat around to talk about his evident deteriorating condition, trying to talk through the hard inevitables, and they started with logistics but somehow it turned into questions about church. You see, her dad had never really been into church although his wife and the girls have been devoted Christians. But he began to ask them,

Why do you believe?

My friend almost didn’t know what to say, saying I don’t know why because churches are full of broken people and we’re all just a mess. She shared with me how strange it was to hear him ask,

Who is God?

And then at the end they prayed together. She said that she heard him pray for the first time in a really long time. He never prayed, it was always the mom. But he prayed, she said, such an honest, baby-like faith prayer, full of questions and theology that strangely seemed so right and even biblical without him knowing anything. And he said in the prayer, this stoic private korean man, never-would-say-this-in front others, but in a prayer, how grateful he was for his wife and his daughters.

The ladies cried of course, and my friend was on a video call with me, as she was snacking saying, “that ended just 20 minutes ago, I’m so emotionally drained, it was crazy.” I felt honored to sit there and get a chance to see into a window of such an intimate and vulnerable moment of someone. It’s a dark time for this family. Her grandma, the mom’s mother, had actually just passed away a few weeks ago and now her dad with this… And yet, what a beautiful moment for this family. 

I think there might be a reason why there is a kind of surrender of a soul when we get faced with things like cancer or death. Because you can’t fight or flight anymore. You just have to be, in that moment, with all the fear and pain. And yet it allows an invitation to dig deeper to what the heart really wants. At times like this, with strange strength, things like hope and gratitude set in…for no good reason except that that’s the only thing that matters. I feel like my friend’s dad probably had every reason, and the whole family has every reason to be worried, troubled, be afraid, and they are, and yet, there was a gift for them in that moment of prayer. Tears, confession, gratitude, surrender, longing and seeking for peace that the world cannot give. 

Have you ever lit a candle in a bright room in the daylight? Have you ever lit a small candle in a dark room? Do you go on Christmas lights drives or tours in the daytime? No! You go at night.

The staff decorated this place a bit with Christmas lights last week. We turned on some 80’s/90’s inspired Christmas playlist, and I made my round to my colleagues while they were decorating to join me in a few merry steps. It was fun. 

And then, after a day of working in the office in the ministry center, I was heading back to my car, and the lights in here drew me in. I came inside to take in the lights as the sun was going down. It was dark. It was quiet. It humbled me, and made me see the twinkling lights differently than earlier that day. 

I think the heart is like a small twinkling Christmas light. Sometimes, it’s not the brightest or the most visible. I mean I think our brain and minds get so much credit. But if you quiet your mind a little, you might notice the heart’s burning hope, longing or desire. Its strength of peace, especially when there’s a cacophony of noise in the world. When you give it some time, some quiet and some silence. Sometimes by invitation of your own, or sometimes by invitation of circumstances where all the noise becomes background noise, when things are dimmed a bit, and darkness sets in, I think it’s then, when the little glow is the most beautiful. 

Darkness is a part of life. Heck it’s half of our lives, and if you don’t do well during those hours, those who struggle with rest or sleep, it’ll impact all of your life. In fact, those are really precious parts of our lives. Negative space makes a photo. When we are bored with “nothing to do” is when our brains get a chance to be creative or even thread together biographical narratives about our past and future. Do you wait for your heart to speak?

I think that’s what prayer is. Or listening to God is. Like the Quakers that worship in silence. Waiting on the Lord means quieting our anxious minds and listening. And I think, especially initially, it takes a really really long time. I think with practice it does get faster, like you hear and recognize God’s voice. 

I’ll end with this illustration. 

I grew up playing the piano. Have you ever been in the room when the piano tuner comes? Tuning a piano takes a really really long time. They go through each note, and turn up or turn down, with each note. I don’t know how anyone could have the patience to do so. Look up piano tuning on YouTube and try to watch it, it’s so boring. But when they are done tuning, you can play beautiful music. Well first you have to learn, and then practice, and then maybe memorize and feel it in your soul and body, and you become one with the piano to play beautiful music.

Maybe our heart is like a piano, sometimes really out of tune from clunking it around to different floors of our house. I hope that you will find some space and time to sit and wait on the Lord, waiting for your heart to tune. That you will find freedom and peace in God knowing that you are so in union with them, God knows you and you know God, that your hearts are one. Let me pray for us. 

Crumbs from the Table

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Matthew 15:21-28

New International Version

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 

22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

After our family moved to the United States, my mom started writing letters to my grandmother. My mom was the 6th daughter out of 8 children, often lost in the shuffle and – she would say- didn’t get much love. But letters from America was one way she tried to heal her relationship with my grandmother. She would write 5-10 pages of affirmation, encouragement, and forgiveness, to try to mend the relationship.

After my grandmother passed away in 2016, my uncle collected her things, one of which was a collection of all of my mother’s letters to her. He sent it back to my mom. And if I wanted to get a closer understanding of their relationships, my mother- even after she passes- and her mother, these letters would be one of the primary ways I’d do that. 

Reading the Bible is like this. Why do we care to take this story of Jesus from the Bible to read, meditate and reflect on, and attempt to find our own story in it? Because when I get my hands on those letters my mom wrote, I’ll hurl myself over them, with a kleenex in hand, peering into the mind of my mother holding her mother in her heart to see if I could find myself in any of those words. 

The story we just read: where do you see yourself in the story?

Do you find yourself relating to the disciples – who are close to Jesus, have access to Jesus, and yet sometimes find the things that come around and with Jesus bothersome or as a nuisance?

Or do you find yourself relating to Jesus – finding yourself on one path, determined and sure, and for some reason, realizing that you should go another path, out of a prompting of an unexpected person?

Or do you find yourself relating to the woman – begging for crumbs, because you’re desperate for a miracle, even crumbs would do?

Well, let’s go through the characters, and see what we can learn about what God is like and maybe even a bit about ourselves.

So, first the disciples. Many of us here could likely be identified as the disciples. Many of you have been Christians for a long time. And this line they say in this text,

Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

I think it invites us to something that we Christians need to reckon with. Who have we been sending away? Who keeps crying out after us, that we choose to ignore or exclude? 

And what we eventually learn from this text, though it takes a moment before we get there (we’ll get to that in just a minute) is that God’s kin-dom is bigger than you think. Let me say that again. God’s kin-dom is bigger than you think. God’s embrace is larger than you can imagine. Think of someone you think, oh no, not them. I could never go to the same church with them. I could never worship in the same place as them. That person, yes that person, God is saying, hmmmm maybe we could sit next to them at a table. 

I was thinking about this from last week’s sermon Steve preached. We reflected on the text from the beautiful Community Group content that pastor Ivy made in our Mindfulness Community Group (shameless plug: Tuesdays 12pm on Zoom). In that text the Pharisees were asking,

“why do they eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

And it made me think of you know those finance guys, or the bad boys of pharma, or the 1%. You know those privileged, rich folks. Turns out, yo this is Cambridge, we got some of those right here. 

God really challenges me sometimes with God’s expansive love. I’m not talking about forgive and forget. I’m not talking about not having healthy boundaries. I recently was reading a book called Bold Love, by Dan Allender.

One of 5 subtitles got me to pick up this book again,

“how to love an abusive person without opening yourself up to more damage.”

And it’s not wishy-washy love. It’s powerful, strong, confident love that can withstand so much. I experienced some trauma when I was a child, and there was a time, when I was deep in processing all that, I imagined walking into church and having that person who had done me wrong standing there holding the communion plate.

I’m not saying you should. It is a complex, nuanced journey, unique to each person. And please, don’t engage this if this is too soon or tender for you. Take care and zone me out right now. But could it be, that even our greatest enemies, the worst kind, that we say, “no not them”, God says,

“yes, even them”? 

Let me move onto Jesus. Now this is one of the most interesting texts about Jesus because it’s a rare one where he is…. Corrected. Disagreed with. And Jesus changes his mind. So what does that tell us about God? Does God change God’s mind? Isn’t God all powerful, all knowing? Then why didn’t God just do, in the first place, what God was supposed to do?

There are extended scholarly debates in the chambers of academia arguing about this –did Jesus really know he was God? The divinity of Jesus is a mystery, a both/and as common creeds confess, fully human and fully God. And that’s the beauty of it all! With all that God is, should, can be, and could be, God CHOSE to not be all those things in the body of Jesus to be and in relationship with us! If God kept true to all of God’s full nature, we would not have access to God. God wouldn’t need us. We would be robots!

But look at Jesus in this text. He’s kind of rude here. He doesn’t even answer her! Isn’t he like that rabbi who walks by the guy who was hurt on the side of the road in that Samaritan story? Jesus was kind of… stubborn, saying, 

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

And then when she wouldn’t let up, he says to her,

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Um, did Jesus just curse? Did he just call her a dog? I think so. I recently read a book called, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American writer, where the main character is called “little dog” by his grandmother. Because if you had a beautiful pet name for your little one, like sweetie, or cupcake, then the evil spirits would come and get them, so instead she named him “little dog”. It’s a curse word in Korean too. I think in most languages, dog is considered not a pleasant thing to be called. Fully human and fully God.

And does God change God’s mind? I earnestly believe so. How could it be? Because, God isn’t worried about the perfect end product. God is worried about you. God cares what you think. What you have to say. I always get a bit frustrated with God. Why don’t you just fix all this stuff, if you call yourself God and you’re all good. Then why do you let me stumble, and fall, and bleed. God sometimes gets quiet when I say these kinds of prayers. Quiet and listening, nodding. I see God quietly putting a hand on my knee where it’s bleeding, scraping their hand on the gravel for no reason, as if to clean dirt. Sometimes I even see God showing me how to walk, fall, and showing me how to patch oneself up and get back up. And I hear God say,

“Cause I wanna do it with you.” 

Watching my 2-year old girl climb into her car seat by herself is about the most frustrating thing in the world. If I pick her up and sit her down, we’re ready to go, clip, and off we go. But seeing her climb up in the most leisurely fashion, putting her foot in the most inefficient place, all turned around and struggling, for what! I’m like, gripping my hands, trying not to grab her leg into position, (because then it would be an even longer ordeal where she says I can do it myself! And cries and gets out of position, and hurts herself), so I just have to hold my heart together so she can get in the car seat by herself. I need to leave the house earlier, so that she has time for this. It’s completely inefficient, I just stand there and have to breathe and watch her struggle. That is my job. 

I’m sure God is more patient than me, but I wonder too, if God’s not like, ooh, just don’t do that, don’t do it like that, yikes, just…

But then again, sometimes I let my girl do it all by herself, and she comes up with the most brilliant, creative, hilarious and smart thing ever. Like, when I tell her to go ahead, she knows how, and she grabs my hand and says,

“but I want to do it with you.”

And I’m like, so humbled, and think, she got it right. I had it wrong. She knows what’s important. To do it together. That’s what I think prayer is. For us to do it with God. And that’s why I think, as crazy and mysterious as it is, that prayer works. 

Lastly, the woman. Can you relate with her?

Jesus kind of insults her but she doesn’t even miss a beat. In fact, this is not her first time, and she doesn’t have time to get offended about stuff like that. She’s trying to get her daughter healed and that’s the only thing that matters. 

Have you ever been that desperate? 

Earlier I talked about the privileged folks, welcoming them. The thing is, it just so happens some people choose not to come themselves, because they don’t need it that bad. Or they feel that they don’t need it that bad. Whether it’s community, or healing, or grace, or forgiveness. The reality is that many of us have the luxury and the privilege to drown that out with hobbies, or food, or drinking, or preoccupations and projects that numb us from the reality of what we really need.

Have you ever needed to beg at Jesus’ feet for help? For mercy? Have you ever been that desperate? When everything you’ve used as a crutch or a distraction disappears or fails, what are you left with? When the career you’ve built or the job you’ve given everything to all of sudden fires you. When you’ve poured yourself into your kids, and they’re growing up and don’t need you any more. In a way, we get a taste of things like this when you try a spiritual discipline like fasting. 

Fasting is something I hate to do. 

I used to smoke. Oh and when I read Michelle Obama’s book and found out Barack smoked, I was like see, even he did it! And for anyone who’s in any kind of sobriety journey, big hats to you, because addiction is a dog. I mean, addictions are horrible, and if you can fight that, you have really tapped into a great source of strength and power and you can do anything. Quitting was really hard. And during that time, if I even walked by someone who was smoking, it took every ounce of me to not ask, “can I bum a smoke off of you?”, and instead just get a whiff of their smoke. Crumbs…

In a book called Addiction & Grace by Gerald May, he talks about the desire behind addiction. And in his experience, it wasn’t just about drugs or alcohol, but he experienced people struggling with all kinds of addiction from aspirin, nose drops, to work, to performance, intimacy, being liked, helping others, and more. And he talks about his own experience this way,

Compared to what happens to people who suffer from alcoholism or narcotic addiction, what happened to me may not seem much of a “rock bottom.” But it had the same grace-full effect. To state it quite simply, I had tried to run my life on the basis of my own will power alone. When my supply of success and this egotistic autonomy ran out, I became depressed. And with the depression, by means of grace, came a chance for spiritual openness.

This woman was so desperate that she compelled Jesus to expand his mission and calling. Because a Cannanite woman’s daughter’s life mattered. Prayer works.  

When have you asked God for something with this kind of “chance for spiritual openness”? Has there ever been a time you’ve knelt and said, “help me?” This you, now? 

When we do so, God does not turn away. In fact God expands God’s arms fully to embrace whatever state you might be in to say, “You are healed.” Do you believe that? I don’t know that I always believe that. I mostly don’t when I’m fine and just don’t need God that much. But for the rest of us, do you need help? Do you need Jesus? Do you need the love of God to break through every lesser gods that failed to satisfy you? Do you need God’s healing? Even a crumb of it? 

Dear friends, I hope that you’re not in that place, where a crumb will do. But if you are, may you taste and see, and know that God is good. Even a crumb will do.  Let me pray for us. 

God, throw me a bone will ya? So many of us are holding so much right now. Juggling life, school, health, our bodies, our families, our safety. Our bodies are tired of fears and anxieties that we’re in need of your peace to break through. Will you shine a light on us Jesus. As the psalmists prayed, don’t look away. Answer us!  Shine your face on our face. May you bring healing. May you bring healing. On our land,  in our school, in our workplaces, in our families, and in our bodies. May you bring healing. Amen. 

“…in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Let me tell you about another recent pandemic moment. Our adult daughter has mostly been out of our home the past nine months. She has come back home for the summer, and the other day she looked at me the other day and said “Dad, you seem old now.”

Part of me was offended, of course.

But part of me was like: dang straight, I am. This year has aged me. And here our daughter is, with a little time away, seeing her parent as he is. As I am.

Dad, you seem old now. 

I used to teach literature to teenagers, and we often read coming of age books together – stories about adolescents growing up. One of the features of these stories are the moments when kids see adults, and their parents in particular, for who they are, not just who the kid in them always wanted them to be. 

I vividly remember the time I first saw my dad cry – not just crying a tear of sadness, but stooped over, distressed, helpless. I only knew part of the reason that was happening. I learned more later. But I never saw my dad the same way again. He was smaller, more fragile than I’d imagined.

Sometimes it goes the other way. I know just a little bit about this fabulously wealthy business executive from the Middle East. One time he was telling me about what happened upon the occasion of his father’s funeral. He always knew his father was an influential, generous man. But upon his father’s death, he was given access to the stories and records of the communities and causes and people that his father supported. And the scope and the impact were larger than he’d ever dreamed, by many magnitudes.

This discovery gave him his life’s mission, to carry on this family legacy of service, generosity, and impact. To be a son his father would be proud of. His father was larger, more wonderful than he’d ever imagined. 

As we grow as people of faith, we have these same kinds of experiences with God. We realize things we thought were true of God are likely not true. Or it goes in the other direction – we have ideas or experiences that make us wonder if God is better or more beautiful than we’d previously imagined God to be.

Regardless, as we go through life, if we think about God at all, our thoughts aren’t going to be static, unchanging. We’re going to keep wondering: What is God like? What is the main thing that is true about God? 

What is God like as a parent? What does it mean that God does or doesn’t have power? That God is a creator? 

Today we’re going to engage these very questions. What is most true of God? And what kind of parenthood, power, and creativity does God have?

When I preach this summer, I’m going to be walking us through one of the very oldest Christian creeds called The Apostles Creed – interpreting and reinterpreting it for the times we live in, with the questions and experiences we have today. 

In the first four centuries of the Christian tradition, the Bible was compiled. Pastors and bishops and councils also tried to write a few short summaries of the core content of the Christian faith, and ever since, most Christians have believed what’s said in these creeds. But they weren’t ever perfect; the writers of these creeds had their own political and spiritual agendas and issues they were working out as they wrote. And Christians, even as they’ve believed these creeds, have been continually reinterpreting just what they mean as well. 

All faith, including Christian faith, is like this. It evolves and adapts along with humanity. From my perspective, God’s totally cool with this as well. God is ultimately the author of life, and all of life – including religion and faith – is always changing. That’s just how it works. 

So here I am this summer, enjoying the chance to share with you how I engage with this creed and what it says about my faith and hopefully helping you do the same. 

The first line of the creed is:

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth

Last week we talked about what we mean when we say “I believe” or “we believe” and this week we talk about the main thing the creed says about God, that God is “the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” 

First, that word “Father.” 

Let’s listen to how Jesus talks about God. From where Jesus’ students asked him to teach them how to pray:

Luke 11:2a 

Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father….

Father. Jesus said more words than this, of course. He taught them a short prayer to say, but not just one word: Father. But he did start with that word.

Jesus called God “Father” over and over and over, while talking to God in prayer, while talking about God. Now Jesus didn’t speak English, so he didn’t actually call God “Father”. He called God “Abba,” the Aramaic word that meant both Dad and Father – intimate and personal but also kinda formal. 

Jesus mostly called God “Abba.” 

Let’s talk for a minute about the good and the bad of what’s come to us in Jesus calling God Abba.

First, the good.

Even though Jesus couldn’t see God, just like us, Jesus considered God accessible and close, like a parent. And Jesus liked to teach what kind of parent, what kind of Abba God is, the most loving and generous parent you can imagine, even if that’s not what your parents were like. 

Jesus also taught that God creates all things and that God has vision for who and what God created, that God has particular kinds of hopes and goals for us. Jesus taught that God has some power to help us get there too. Jesus’ Abba gives gifts and welcomes people into relationship and community and guides people toward safer, healthier lives, and encourages, even demands really, most just and more kind ways of living. 

In the Christian tradition, these things Jesus taught about Abba God have often been expressed by words like there are in this creed –

“Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”

But let’s talk for a minute about where this has gone off the rails entirely, about the bad in what’s come to us through these words. 

First and most obviously, it’s led people to imagine that God has a penis. I mean, maybe not literally, but for centuries, the Christian imagination has conceived of God as the most powerful man on earth, but more. 

And so Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth has led us to picture the most powerful of powerful men

This hasn’t gone well. It turned God in our minds into an aloof, controlling, sometimes violent monarch. Not emotional, able to get and do whatever he wants, violently punishing the wicked and rewarding the just. God as a cosmic king or warlord. 

And then men raised in this faith are shaped in this image, as emotionally distant, controlling, sometimes violent husbands and fathers. And then that image of aloof, controlling human fatherhood further shapes our image of God. 

Vicious cycle. 

This fantasy of God as aloof but mighty monarch is behind so much of what has been bad in our faith. It has justified the actions of bad human powers and basically created the problem of Evil, which has driven so many people from the faith. 

Is that what God is like? Is that the God Jesus called Abba? Is that the God we’re required to worship and follow today?

No.

We’ve often talked about how God is neither male nor female, and how speaking of God, and praying to God, and singing to God as both Father and Mother can enrich our relationship with God. But let’s also talk about that word “Almighty” for a moment. 

You see it in the Old Testament in English Bibles in a number of places. For instance, at the start of this famous psalm:

Psalm 91:1-2 (New Standard Revised Version)

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,

    who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,[a]

 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;

    my God, in whom I trust.”

That word Almighty makes it sound like God can do everything – it seems pretty straightforward. God can protect us and make sure nothing ever bad happens to us. But wait, do any of us believe what this psalm seems to promise on those terms? That if we trust God, God will protect us from bad things? This kind of imagination of God’s power has weakened the faith of so many of us and driven lots of others away from the faith entirely.

When I talk to people who have walked away from faith in God, or wonder how much faith they have left, the top two reasons by far I hear are the bad things Christians do and have done, and this problem of evil. If God is so loving and so powerful – if God is Almighty, why do bad things happen to good people? 

Let’s revisit that word Almighty again and ask if that’s what it’s really saying – that God can just control whatever God wants, whenever God wants. 

You’ll notice in many of your Bibles a little footnote next to that word in the Old Testament. I left it on your last slide. And that footnote is because “Almighty” is translating a Hebrew name of God, El Shaddai. 

Here’s another translation of the start of Psalm 91 that keeps it.

Psalm 91:1-2 (Common English Bible) 

You who sit down in the High God’s presence,

    spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,

Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.

    I trust in you and I’m safe!”

It’s clearer now – this God isn’t a warlord, this God is a home. El Shaddai is left untranslated here, because it’s such an old name. One of its possible literal meanings is God of the mountain refuge: safety, a hiding place, a place and a person to go to when you’re scared and looking for help. 

And that gets at the other possible literal meaning. God of the mountain refuge, or possibly, God of the breast. Yeah, a woman’s breast. God of my comfort, God of the nurturing protection of the mother’s bosom. 

That’s different, isn’t it? Imagine if the Christian creeds had said:

I believe in God the Father and the Safe Hiding Place, who Makes all Things.

Or

I believe in God the Mother with the Comforting Breast, who Creates all Things.

How different would the history of our faith look?

This is a better picture of the power of God. Not a yet more powerful human king of emperor or warlord or CEO. Not an aloof controlling, violent, ruler. But a nurturing God, a loving one who is always there, and who creates and acts in collaboration, through persuasion, not dominance.

You can find both of these images in the Bible – the violent, controlling God, and the nurturing, safe, persuasive God. The Bible is a long collection of writings, compiled over hundreds of years, with a lot of complexity.

But the follower of Jesus, who centers faith in the God who is known in Christ, needs to ask: what does Jesus show us about God? Who is the God Jesus calls “Abba”?

Let’s turn back to Jesus one more time.

Luke 12:28-32 

28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!

29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying.

30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them.

31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.

Jesus invites us to worship and believe in the God Jesus called “Abba” – not exclusively male – that was never the point. But God as a loving parent, a nurturer and creative maker, God whose power is found in loving persuasion and wisdom, not violent control. 

I’m reading only the end of this passage in Luke. But if you read the whole thing, you see:

  • Jesus’ Abba is the God who knows you and loves you, who understands your needs.
  • Jesus’ Abba is a God who is safe. Unlike the nations and rulers of this earth, you can trust this God.
  • Jesus’ Abba is God who is creative – who makes beautiful things on this earth. 
  • Jesus’ Abba is God who has vision for our lives and vision for our world – this Kingdom, this kindom, this Beloved Community Jesus is longing for us to see into being together with God. 
  • And Jesus’ Abba is powerful, but not push-people-around, override-wills and get things done with or without us kind of powerful. No, Jesus’ Abba requires our collaboration to act. Jesus’ Abba never has power over anyone, but power with us. 

We get this with human parents. The one who gets their way through manipulation, bossiness, control, or force – that’s a violent parent, that’s a loud parent, but that’s a bad parent, and not a very powerful one.

Whereas the parent who can guide children into abundant life through persuasion, with the children acting on their own agency as well, that’s a wise parent, a good parent, and a powerful parent as well.

So it is with God. 

How would Christian history be different if Christians had believed in, loved and worshipped a Mother/Father, creative God, whose power is through loving persuasion? Not an aloof monarch, whose power is through violent force?

How would your life be different if you believed in, worshipped, and loved a Mother/Father, creative God, whose power is through loving persuasion? Not an aloof monarch, whose power is through violent force?

We would know this God loves you, is safe, and only wants your welfare, and the welfare of all of creation for that matter. And you could call this God God and Father, and Dad and Mom, and anything else that helps you envision one who knows and loves and nurtures you.

We would know this God as a nurturing Maker, who loves everything God has made, who engages tenderly with all of creation, co-creating beauty and love and justice with all or creation. And we would welcome our role as co-creators and co-preservers with God, treasuring God’s sacred presence in creation, and treating it all with care. 

And we would know that God has wisdom and vision for us all but isn’t going to steer anyone of us, not the whole family, nor the earth toward God’s good against our will. God is luring and persuading us toward the good, but not controlling us. And we’d ask how we in our little lives can cooperate with God’s beautiful vision for us all.

It’s fun to keep finding out what God is really like. Letting go of childish, incomplete, inadequate ideas, and replacing them with better, truer, more beautiful conceptions of God. It can be hard to learn and change, but it can be really good too. In your life, may you continue toward faith in a truer, more beautiful God.

And God, give us eyes to see and hearts and minds to know what it means that you are a loving parent, uncontrolling power, and endlessly creative Maker God. Amen.

 

Where Is The Spirit of God?

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s spiritual practice, led by Lydia Shiu, click HERE.

From Easter through Pentecost, which is on Sunday, May 23, we’ll be exploring some of the ways we find what’s important, encounter God, and participate in God’s Beloved Community as we listen to God’s spirit, in all the places and ways God is present to us. We’re calling this series Listening to the Spirit. We’ve found over the years that listening well – listening to ourselves and our hearts and our lives, listening to the people around us, and listening to God in all the ways God speaks – is central to fulfilling our purposes for our lives, central to how we find God and wholeness and everything else good in life. We’ll end the series on May 23, partly because that’s about the right amount of time, and partly because that is Pentecost Sunday. This is a day in Jewish tradition associated with a Spring harvest festival and God’s giving of the law through Moses, but a day in Christian tradition associated with God’s Holy Spirit, God’s living presence on this earth to be with and encourage and speak to all people. And today I’m going to talk about where the Spirit of God is. Where do we go to listen to the Spirit?

But first on a personal note, the last day of this series May 23 is the next time I’ll be preaching at Reservoir, since I’m taking a month off, starting this Tuesday. Yeah, a whole month; I’m incredibly grateful. It’s the first third of a sabbatical that the church is granting me for rest and renewal. After 11 straight years of leading a school and then leading a church, I’ve got some extra time over the next three years to step back from work here and there, find some peace, and listen to the Spirit myself as I seek God’s ongoing guidance in my life and the life of this community. So a big thank you to all of you and to our pastoral team and Board for making this possible, and a big thank you to this church for being not just a beautiful and amazing community I am glad to be part of and serve, but for being much more than the contributions of any one person, myself included.

And now to today’s topic. I’m speaking on the question “Where is the Spirit of God?” And I’m inspired by Jesus’ words in the gospel of Luke, which we’ll read now.

Luke 17:20-21 

20 Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom was coming. He replied, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed.

21 Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you.”

 

Jesus taught a lot about this place, or this idea, that he called the Kingdom of God. And people around Jesus were often like: what, what? They knew about kingdoms. This area was occupied territory, part of the state of Syria on the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire. So they were like: woah, Jesus – what is this kingdom you speak of? Jesus didn’t usually address these questions very directly; he told stories about what life is like when God’s love and desires carry the day on earth.

We like to call it a kindom sometimes because when you take out the “g” you get rid of the emphasis on power and patriarchy, which isn’t what Jesus’ vision are about at all. And more and more, we’ve been describing Jesus’ kindom vision as Beloved Community. Where faith and freedom are more our way in the world than fear, where relationships and societies are governed by generosity more than judgement, kindness more than contempt, and where we walk with God and others not proud and contentious but beloved, included, humble, just, and grateful.

But today I don’t want to talk about what the Beloved Community is so much as where it is. Because Jesus was asked, if you have a kindom coming, if you have a Beloved Community growing on earth, how will we find it, and Jesus is like – fine, here’s where you should look.

Another way of putting this is to say if God is still with us by God’s Spirit, where do we find it? Where do we look for God’s Spirit, so we can lean in and listen?

A psychologist and theologian I follow named Richard Beck recently wrote about this passage along these lines, acknowledging that the phrase Jesus uses that I read today as:

“God’s kingdom is already among you.”

The power of a preposition, friends. There are actually three different ways you can read the Greek of that phrase among you, and those will help point us to three places we can find God’s Spirit and listen. 

The first way we can read it is “God’s kindom, God’s beloved community is in your midst.” 

“In Your Midst”

Read this way, Jesus is saying:

the Spirit of God isn’t going to be any place you need to find at all, it’s right here. It’s me. Wherever I am, there the Beloved Community will grow and be. I’m right here.

Jesus is God’s presence and wisdom and help and peace, and the Spirit of God is the presence of Jesus still available to us all, unseen. 

Earlier in Luke, when Jesus began his public ministry, he said this more or less, when he said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to speak good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to those in prison, recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”

Healing and justice and freedom are signs of the kindom, and Jesus is like:

listen to me. I can take you there. Into God’s favor.

We listen to the Spirit by listening to Jesus.

It was transformative for me when in my late teens into my twenties, I realized I could listen to the teaching of Jesus and try to really follow it. I’m not saying I did follow the teaching of Jesus in most way, my God, no, it takes a lifetime. It’s just that I learned it’s a thing you can actually dedicate yourself to, and that it’s good stuff. 

I was in a group of Chrsitians that read and studied the gospels a lot, for hours. A friend gave me a book by a philosopher named Dallas Willard. It was called The Divine Conspiracy, and it argued that:

God’s hope, the conspiracy God was hatching, was for ordinary people to love and follow the teaching and practice of Jesus, listening to the Spirit of Jesus as we seek to do so, letting this form my life. 

I grew up seeing and hearing about a lot of unmanaged anger and lust. Listening to the Spirit in Jesus, I learned that if I wanted to be a trustworthy and safe person, my anger and my lust would need to be transformed, so that I wouldn’t be prone to using people or attacking people. I grew up like most of us thinking love was a feeling, but I learned from listening to the Spirit in Jesus that love is a way of life – it’s steady kindness and delight and service and trust. I grew up in an all white, man’s world. But I got my start in feminism, in anti-racism, in the radical affirmation of the dignity of all people through seeing how Jesus did all that, so far ahead of his time, so far ahead of our time still. And I grew up thinking being religious made you “judgy,” gave you the right to look down on people who didn’t have their stuff together. But Jesus showed me the way to radical acceptance. 

There was this time when I was a teacher, in my late twenties, when I was praying about the upcoming school year. And I was reading the words of Jesus in the gospel of John when he says:

I have come not to judge the world, but to save it.

And this light when off in my head, like what am I doing? As a teacher, I spend so much time judging my students. Even the way I grade their papers comes off providing them a much larger dose or criticism than it does anything that will really help them be better writers and more competent, confident young people. And that moment transformed how I grade English papers, of all things, what kind of comments I write and what I don’t, what kind of process I’d work in my classroom to focus on elevating my students, not judging them. 

What I’m trying to say is that I found my start in the kind of adult life I want to live by listening to the Spirit in Jesus, right there in our midst. To be found every time I read the gospels, and every time I pray with Jesus and to Jesus. 

I know so many of you have this experience, that when we listen to Jesus, we find better ways forward. We find life. I’ve heard many dozens, probably hundreds actually of stories in this community of people praying while reading the words of Jesus and praying to Jesus and with Jesus and finding great ways forward. 

That’s why in my month off coming up, part of what I’ll be doing is reading the four gospels slowly, and taking walks alone believing that Jesus is walking with me, unseen, through the Spirit of God, and that Jesus is there to talk to when I feel like it, and to light up my mind and my heart and my path. 

The Spirit of God is in our midst, whenever we give our attention to the words and life and teaching and presence of Jesus. 

But there’s another way to translate this phrase. The Spirit of God is not only in our midst, it’s not only in Jesus. But the Spirit of God is also within you.

“Within You”

The Spirit of God is within you. One of the great innovations of the good news of Jesus is this radical interiority of God’s presence with us. 

The prophet Ezekiel promised that God can and will take hearts of stone – cold, hard, unresponsive – and make them hearts of flesh – warm, loving, responsive, able to receive and provide nurture. In Luke, some people call this Luke’s heart theology, that God can work upon us to help us be warm to change, to welcome love and grace and practice kindness and compassion and nurture for others. 

This is the “rule and reign” of God in our hearts, or what I like to call the God’s loving presence and leadership within us. Sometimes we listen to the Spirit within us through our conscience. And sometimes through the still, small voice of God, sometimes a combination of both.

So many of you have rich and many experiences of the God’s presence and leadership through God’s Spirit within you. We have a treasury of this kind of experience in our church. I am by no means the expert in the room on listening to the Spirit within us.

But I can simply say that many of the most important decisions I’ve made in my life have been based on listening to the Spirit within. Who I married. Where I live. Why I became pastor of this church. I could go on and on.

Seven years ago, our church was caught up in a controversy which thank God now seems dated and well behind us. But we were sorting out whether our LGBTQ participants in our community would have full standing and equality in our community. Again, this seems obvious to many of us now, but for most of Christian history, churches haven’t extended the same rights and freedom and blessing and dignity even to LGBTQ people as we have to everyone else. And for the most part, it’s only been in recent decades in this country that churches have started to do so. 

Now I was by no means the only player in this conversation in our church. There were many gracious, courageous, thoughtful LGBTQ people and allies who participated and led our church’s discernment and change. There were pastors and leaders and members of our community – and all kinds of people outside our church who were watching us – who weighed in in different ways. But for my part, though I read dozens of books on the Christian faith, the Bible, and the experiences of LGBTQ people and Christians, I participated in hundreds of conversations with people about their experiences and convictions and yearnings and pain. I was part of many discussions with pastors and scholars and people of different sexual identities and faith experiences, and so much more.

One of the most influential moments in my whole process that got me where I am today, was an experience I had during worship a little over seven years ago, where as I was singing with our congregation, a thought popped into my mind that was so vivid, in words so clear, and felt so much like everything I know in my mind and my experience of God, that I was sure God was speaking to me. I’m still sure God was speaking to me. And the sentence I believe God said by God’s Spirit was enough. I knew that I would always henceforth be a pastor who would extend the same dignities and blessings and love and inclusion to LGBTQ people as I would to anyone else. And I’m so grateful that God helped me get here. 

The Spirit of God is within you. God is with you to be present to you and guide you, my friends, whatever you are facing today. 

The late medieval Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila put it this way:

that God lives within you, and since heaven is wherever God lives, you are God’s heaven.

Friends, trust that God lives within you. Ask God for help to notice how God is with you, for God to speak God’s love and leadership to you through your mind, through your desires, through your conscience. Pay attention by faith, and see what you hear.

The Spirit of God is, with Jesus, in your midst.

The Spirit of God is within you.

But also one more place.

The Spirit of God is within reach.

“Within Reach” 

The Spirit of God is within reach.

This third way we can translate the words Jesus said about kindom and about the Spirit means “within your grasp”, “near to hand”, “right in front of you, wherever you are.” The Spirit of God isn’t just in Jesus, and isn’t just within us, but also just out in front of us, still to be realized, wherever you are, throughout all creation. 

When I was new to the Christian faith, I was taught that Spirit of God was in Jesus – so we can listen to the Spirit when we listen to Jesus. And I was taught that the Spirit of God lives within those who love and follow Jesus – so that if we love and follow Jesus, we can listen to the Spirit of God within.

But I was also taught that outside of Jesus, and outside of baptized followers of Jesus, you might find goodness, but you weren’t going to find much of God’s Spirit. A lot of Christians are taught this, which is why Christians sometimes don’t have the greatest curiosity, humility, and compassion for how God is present and what God is doing outside of Christian people and institutions. 

But over the centuries, more and more followers of Jesus have realized that God pours out God’s Spirit abundantly, in surprising people and places, and that God is present to God’s creation everywhere. The Spirit of God is also beyond you and me, but within reach. 

Franciscan followers of Jesus discovered that the Bible contains wonderful words of God, but the first Word of God is creation. The natural world – the trees and oceans and plants and animals – all of creation is the first Bible, where the Spirit lives and speaks.

Jesuit followers of Jesus learned to look for God in all things. Which at their best, which hasn’t been always, has led to really great curiosity and partnership with non-Christian cultures and peoples, seeing that God is speaking there too by God’s Spirit.

Protestant missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries were mostly caught up still in the colonial project, in which they brought good news of Jesus but also white supremacy, and American and European dominance. So sad. But small, and later increasing numbers of these missionaries, were led by God and taught and trained to notice signs of the Spirit of God’s presence in all cultures and all peoples, long before Christians or the name of Jesus were ever on the scene.

I don’t have time to share more stories on this front in my life, but in recent years, I’ve listened to the Spirit more and more out in front of me, beyond places I’d known to look before.

I’ve listened to the Spirit speaking about the reforms that religion needs to be healthy in our times from a Muslim journalist who writes about about Islam, secularism, and Jesus. 

I’ve listened to the Spirit speaking about how to be a more relational person, and how to continue having Jesus shape my life, through a public health agency in India we partner with. 

I’m listening to the Spirit of God speak about the struggles of the earth to survive and the power of the earth to flourish through my children, and through the mountains and the trees, and through scientists and activists mostly operating outside of religious spaces. 

Turns out, where can we find God? Everywhere.

And through whom can Spirit of God speak? Absolutely everyone and everything.

This is why life with God is an invitation to listening. Spirit of God doesn’t want to be hard to find or hear. Spirit of God is living, moving, loving, luring, speaking, inviting us to all the best all the time, through many means. 

Jesus invites us ask, seek, and knock. Jesus call us to radical attention – to be present; to radical curiosity – to wonder where and how God will speak today; and to radical listening – to trust that the Spirit of God is in Jesus, is within us, and is right out in front of us, everywhere we go.