What We Need Is A Miracle & Breakdown Lanes

Last Sunday evening I was out to dinner with a group of folks after the Lindsey Sampson concert (which was amazing by the way), and someone asked, what are you talking about next Sunday? And hadn’t thought of what I’d talk about – but off the cuff I said,

“I’m going to talk about ‘miracles and revival’.”

And I surprised myself and laughed – and then many people also laughed….likely at me… but I thought, actually that’s exactly what I want to talk about this morning – miracles. 

So often I hear, and maybe you do too,

“you know what we need in this day and age – we need a miracle,” 

which in part I hear as a dismissive comment – to say things are so bad, too divisive, beyond repair…that all that could possibly work is a miracle. And it rings true. We’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years – and we can feel totally encased by a sense of hopelessness and despair – by the bombardment of all things inconceivable.

And we can wonder in that space,

“Can we really change for the better?”

“Can we grow? Can we keep becoming? Is there any fruit ahead?”

“What will it take to detach from some of the ways we’ve done things, thought of people,  built systems – for years,  decades,  centuries  – and see that they don’t work anymore, that the season is over.” 

AND STILL ENCOUNTER JESUS whatever the season is.

But that comment “we need a miracle” As much as it can sound dismissive – also points to a longing that we have too – for something different – a change – something transformational – new. 

We long for our hearts to be revived, to say unabashedly “YES!” I believe that this world can be reshaped, reguided, created anew…in partnership with Jesus.  I think we long to say,

“ I really do believe in miracles.”

And so today as I talk about miracles – it will be less centered on the miracles of instantaneous change or immediate healing…but the type of miracle it takes to step back at points. And pay attention to the questions that might be stirring in you and gauge whether or not the method, the plan, the spiritual practice, the whatever it is –  is working.  And asking how you can partner with God (not just be a spectator) – but how we can be agents of miracles – of such change, goodness, and life in this world.

So today I’ll get to two ways this summer you can be attentive to your own miracle -making. . . . through a

1) standard of faithfulness – and a

2) community of practice. 

Prayer

God of miracles – the one who loves us just as we are.  The one who tenderly wakes us up each day to the potential and the realness of what might lay ahead. And the one who gently nudges us to to believe for “More” …more of you, more of us, more miracles in our day. Thank you for your presence with us, within us, between us – today. 

STORY

One Mother’s Day before Covid times I organized a special day with my mom. We had agreed to meet half-way and meet each other in Portland, ME.  I’d go up after church services and meet her for an afternoon where she’d get a pedicure (like a once every 10 year event for her) and a nice early evening dinner together.

I was really looking forward to it – mostly because it had been a really long time since I had honored her in any significant way. And we had arranged that Scott would take our kids to see his mom in NH. So I really had this abundance of time, and the potential for all of my attention to devote to my mom.

I left right after church and got about 40 minutes outside of Boston when Scott called and told me that his car had broken down and I’d need to come help.

And I was crushed. But also thought – I can totally still do this. I can still make it to Maine, even if I’m a little late – we can still have a great time together. 

And I plugged into my navigation the address to where Scott was – and started on my way. The navigation pretty quickly led me off the route I was on at the upcoming exit… and had me travel a couple miles of back road, and then get back on the highway.

Initially I was minimally paying attention.

But after a few minutes I had this sensation that I was kind of going in circles.

And as I decided to ACTUALLY pay attention – I realized INDEED I was. Just getting off the highway and then back on .. in the same direction…over and over. 

My GPS was glitching.

AND yet I KEPT “FOLLOWING IT!” for the next few loops – even though I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.  I kept thinking, well maybe this GPS will kick into gear – and direct me the right way. (I mean historically it had been pretty good at this!)  It’s what it’s supposed to do – it’s supposed to be effective at getting me to where I need to go. 

And I thought I didn’t know how to go where I needed to go.

 So I literally stayed with the thing that wasn’t working.  

MIRACLE

Now I’m sure we all have our different thoughts, experiences and associations with miracles. Scripture is a beautiful tapestry of miracles – ranging from parting the Red Sea, to the walls of Jericho falling down, to changing water into wine,  to feeding the 5000, Jesus walking on water, healing the blind man and so many more.

  • Beautiful , inspiring, acts that are not only intended to be instantaneous external displays that change circumstances or physical ailments.
  • But ones that convey a message of greater freedom and connection to JESUS. And disrupt patterns that hinder this… And they show us what to do and how to hope, in the midst of times where our worlds seem to be falling apart.  

So let’s read one of the stories in the gospel of Mark together that I think showcases a miracle – and see what we can glean:

Mark 11:12-22 Common English Bible 

12 The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

13 From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs.

14 So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this.

15 They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves.

16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”

18 The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching.

19 When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city.

 20 Early in the morning, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up.

21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look how the fig tree you cursed has dried up.”

22 Jesus responded to them, “Have faith in God!

Now you are probably thinking… “Hmmm… I don’t really remember that as one of the top “miracle” stories in scripture…” 

And I would say (as my teenagers do), “facts.”


In fact, this scripture is often regarded as a symbol of judgment.

  1. Many scholars would concur that Jesus is teaching and warning the disciples that God will judge those who give an outer appearance of fruitfulness but in fact are not fruitful at all. The only thing they are ripe for, is judgment.

  2. Still other scholars take the fig tree to a larger scale and suggest the fig tree is representative of a faithless Israel. Israel professed to be faithful to God and fruitful as a nation, but in fact it was faithless and fruitless. And  Israel was thus ripe for judgment.

  3. And still other scholars see significance in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple …again highlighting that at a distance the Jewish temple and its sacrificial activities looked fine. But on closer inspection it was found to be mere religion without substance, full of hypocrisy, bearing no spiritual fruit, ripe for judgment.

And yet as all scripture can – it holds many layers, and we can have a variety of  interpretations that do not cancel each other out – and certainly don’t compromise Jesus – but perhaps ignite our curiosity and enliven our connection to Jesus as we consider other interpretations.

So I  see this story as a miraculous one – and one that I think offers us a way forward in our current contexts today….  And perhaps is a little less the “judgment vein.” 

 As we read through this scripture Jesus LEADS by example.

He’s teaching the disciples something about themselves…. and all of us – perhaps!

The story starts by saying

“Jesus was hungry.”

We all are hungry at some point, for something. 

Hungry for what?  It seems like Jesus is saying to the disciples –

“Well, of course figs!” 

It makes sense – figs abound in this region – the disciples would know it as a delicious source of nourishment.

So Jesus does the obvious thing – He GOES to the fig tree and checks it for figs. 
But this move is curious- because of the info that follows,  “But he didn’t find any fruit – because it wasn’t the season for figs”. 


??
? Why then would he go at all toward the tree? If he knew there would be nothing found to satiate his hunger?

I think he does this to say,

“I get it – this is your own natural tendency too – and it’s a strong tug – when looking for nourishment/what you need  – you will be inclined to go toward something that you know – that has given you nourishment and worked in the past.”  

EVEN if it’s OUT OF SEASON.   Even if it’s as obvious as staring at a barren fig tree.

We like patterns, predictability,  even if we end up only going in circles 95 north…. To nowhere.

I think this is why Jesus says to the tree,

“May NO ONE ever eat fruit from you again”

…..and why we see the important piece that

“The DISCIPLES hear him say it”. 

It seems like Jesus is serious about our freedom, freedom from things that no longer bring fruit to our lives – and freedom unto abundant life with him.

STORY

I finally pulled over – that Mother’s day. And sat in the breakdown lane. Wondering what the heck had just happened!  And rather than questioning the functionality of the GPS – or looking at a map, and estimating time I went back to the source and reason for this trip in the first place – which for me was the love of my mom.

The question that grew in me on the side of the road was,

“What does it look like to honor your mother every day? To have a “practice of loving her”

Just where she’s at .. just where you are at… what will bring freedom to both of you? Vitality to your relationship – that can grow and evolve… ?

*Because the thing is .. .life, Jesus, us – we are a medley of stories that are always unfolding, becoming and evolving. 

And our tendency when things don’t work – is to  OVER -ENGAGE or DIS-ENGAGE. (neither of which have the makings of anything miraculous.)

I think Jesus knows we may try to overcompensate for the lack or even disappointment we feel when our methods run dry – and out of season. Maybe we think it’s our failure or responsibility – we lean into those more “judgment” translations of this scripture.  

And we are inclined to stay – to be loyal to the method…  maybe we’ll try to make more figs, re-create what we once knew. Maybe we’ll go get jugs of  H2O and force that SEASON back to life. 

Or we’ll say – it just doesn’t work, I’m done.

And yet – in either of those scenarios the potential loss is that we LOSE sight of what our original hunger was for – which was really connection/ a growing relationship with JESUS.

And maybe the miraculous move of Jesus here is to say …

“hold up, the healthiest thing is to see that this tree has no fruit. It can’t give you what it once did.”

Sometimes you just have to disrupt the pattern.. To find Jesus again. 

Standing right next to you – whole, not worried, open armed…  And that is what opens up all things new. 

STORY

I was so sad that I couldn’t go love my mom in the way that I had planned, that I couldn’t lavish her with some long-overdue attention.  

But sometimes the miracle is simply pulling over and saying this isn’t working.   There’s no movement, no progress. I don’t know what the answer is – but I’m going to exit this pattern.

Because the truth is – it wasn’t about the GPS not working. It was about the pattern of how I expressed love to my mom to some degree – over a long season of time.  Yes a lavish day is amazing but an every- few-year-lavish- day does not make a relationship. 

And this was why I didn’t want to exit

I didn’t want to sit in the break-down lane and regroup, look at the loops I had been in – and realize that’s not how you love my mom. 

We’ve been through what? 2.5 years of pandemic – enough time to see the patterns, the systems, the approaches, the “solutions” that are not working! In our personal lives – in our public lives… all . around. us. .. affecting all of us.

And we stand here – as we did last week, and as we will next week -on the brink of miracles. Not only witnessing them…. but being transformed by them… and being agents of them.

And some of us might think, …

“that’s nice .. I don’t really want to be a miracle agent…sounds like a lot of energy…I’m not really up for that today…”

Jesus says in this scripture and to us today,

“you know what – let’s go for a walk together.. Let’s see what we discover together.”

In the scripture here, they walk – they head to Jerusalem, and Jesus’ object lesson of the fig tree – is now taking a shift – to a more experiential  – practical  lesson.

They arrive at the temple – the place that came to be as an answer to so many people’s hunger – for union and connection with GOD.

“A house of prayer for all nations”

was what it should have been revered as.

But it seems people’s methods to tap into that connection with God seemed to take over. Rituals and  practices became the methods to “connect with God” – which are not bad in and of themselves.

BUT when the method becomes the center from which we expect life and fuel, versus holding GOD at the center. We make a shift to a more “seasonal” approach to love. (which of course, love has no season).

Perhaps this is what occurred in the temple – it seems like people kept mining those methods – long after the nutrients had been depleted.  And when that happens, it becomes toxic – it becomes self-seeking – corrupt and proud, power hungry, ingrown, constricting. 


Right? Then we have money-lenders and dove sellers setting up within a “House of Prayer.”

This is where I think sometimes our tendency is to try to be more LOYAL (which is somehow over-engaging and disengaging at the same time) to the methods – than FAITHFUL to the source (Jesus) and that can lead us  – or the relationship – to being more withered than alive.  

And this slight distinction between loyalty and faithfulness is important I believe… 

Writer KJ Ramsey has noted,  

“loyalty does not produce fruit – it is not a fruit of the spirit. 

Faithfulness is. 

Loyalty as we know it today has its roots in the medieval feudal system. 

Loyalty is an oath or pledge of allegiance sworn by someone with less power – to someone with more power. 

Loyalty is about maintenance of power/dominance/and hierarchy.”

It dries up real relationships, and leaves hearts of stone – creating temples for man’s own gain.

But faithfulness is about love – love with Jesus  first and foremost –  that pursues the good of others. …pursues creating beloved community. (adapted KJ Ramsey, “The Lord is My Courage”). Pursues an ever-becoming faith that never withers not even in the breakdown lanes, but miraculously comes to “real” life. 

Jesus seems to nail this same point home with his disciples. The next morning Jesus and the disciples walk by that “fig tree” –  a completion of his lesson. And Peter pointed out –

“hey that’s the fig tree you cursed – it’s withered from the roots”

aaah, yes – it’s truly out of season.

STORY

I called my mom from the side of the road – the break-down lane. And I said,

“I can’t get to you. I’m so sorry.”  

My mom laughed. The absurd reality of cars breaking down in our family history and messing up plans – is so prevalent…and kind of hilarious.. And then she said, 

“It’s ok, Ivy – just call me tomorrow.”

And I realized for us – to love one another – is to be consistently in connection. And I had been punting that down the road for a long time – and we needed to grow from the roots together again.

I heard in her reply, her longing… and God’s direction, “call me tomorrow.”

And I said, “I’ll call you tomorrow” And the day after that – and the next day after that – and that will be the practice and miracle in action… 

Maybe there are things that aren’t working for you right now.

Maybe it’s something like Scripture – that historically has been central to your grounding and knowing of God.

Or maybe it’s worship music  – the one place you got in touch with your deep emotions.

Or maybe prayer in the ways you’ve always known it – feels foreign or inadequate… or a relationship, a job, a course of study – or a church community…

What does it look like or feel like to you to pull over for a second? To shut off that automatic navigation and see who God says God is to you? (not what a method says God is to you – or a person says God should be to you… but who is God to you?).


VERY quickly I want to jump back to the Old Testament – to the story if you remember it where Moses encounters God in the burning bush… where a conversation ensues about God’s name.

Moses says,

“who should I tell them I saw?”

And God answers, 

“I am who I am”

– or in Hebrew translation,

“I will be who I will be”

It’s as if God is saying,

“I am not giving you a “handle”,

as Avivah Zornberg a Torah and midrash scholar says,

“I’m not giving you a handle to hold on to – to say ‘now I’ve got God’ ,

now I know how to get to God – – because God is always becoming.” God is always becoming …

 And here’s the sheer beauty and wisdom of such a response…. 

God’s answer points to the very nature of how we can know and connect to God – *in all seasons* – that often it entails stepping out of the known and into the unknown – but that which is always allowing the possible and the impossible to happen…the miraculous.  God is saying, “I am who I am”… to you…. 

I am the nexus of wonder….

I am art.

I am scripture.

I am your favorite worship song.

I am a bird’s song.

I am in your drive to see someone in the hospital dying

I am in the hospital corridor filled with your new baby’s cry .

I am in your questions.

I am on the side of the road.. in the breakdown lane…with you.

Where nothing might work like it used to.

I am in the spaces where it seems like there is nothing.

But know that “nothing” is the only essential ingredient of a miracle. 

I learned recently from Rabbi Ariel Burger, that old Hebrew bibles – are organized in such a way that they have the central text in the middle of the page, and then there are commentaries around the sides, and then there’s space around the edges.

This blank space that frames all the words.. .and it’s these edges, these biblical break-down lanes that ultimately are the most important, because that’s where one gets to write their questions, and where one gets to expand and grow and evolve a tradition (and a knowing of God) that, without such participation, would have long since become dormant, rigid, or withered entirely.

I think Jesus in this passage in Mark is saying to us,

“keep having a dialogue with the old ideas and the old wisdoms  – the way things have always been done –  and bringing them forward with our your own voice and your own questions because it’s not only how we survive” 

(Rabbi Ariel Burger)  – but how God survives and is real to us – and this is the miracle we need in our day. God being real to us – reviving us. 

It’s a miraculous way to be really – to not settle into complacency.  And when we are rattled, and despondent and when we endure unimaginable pain – it can feel risky – and like too much energy… but often all that can be found in a walk with Jesus.   

Jesus starts his lesson – by walking and talking about hunger – and ends his lesson by walking and identifying what the real hunger is for….. Not this dry, withered fig tree ..  BUT HUNGRY FOR GOD.    Jesus replies to his disciples –

“Have faith in God”

trust me, turn to me, hunger for me – have faith in me.

The miracles that we get to participate in are recognizing what isn’t working for us – and still being faithful to something bigger than ourselves. This is what calls us into greater community and dedication to repairing and improving  …… even what we know can’t be repaired and improved in our lifetimes.

And this is the standard of faithfulness that I mentioned at the beginning – that Quaker Parker Palmer has taught me over time.

And all the standard of faithfulness entails is to wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other – and have faithfulness to our gifts, (to the things we know & learn about ourselves that impact others in helpful ways)… faithfulness to our perception of the needs of the world, and faithfulness to offering our gifts to whatever needs are within our reach.  This is the standard of faithfulness.

“When faithfulness is our standard, we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being.”

(Parker Palmer)

And the beauty is – that it is not a standard for our indiviudalselves – it is a standard by which we are held in community.  This is my second point to take away today – this idea of a community of practice.

Which is a group of people who “share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”  Like us!  It’s how the followers of Jesus supported each other in their own break-down lanes, in grief, and in celebration – it’s how we here at Reservoir learn to love God and be loved by God as a way by which we flourish and value the presence of one another, care for one another, unto liberation and freedom.  

The practices can be very varied – but it’s that we are holding that central vision – Jesus – at the forefront of our community.

Adrienne Maree Brown says pay attention to what you are practicing day to day. Because we are always practicing things. Are you practicing things you would want to practice (that feel helpful and real to you) – or are you practicing what someone else has told you is the right way to do stuff?

“Because,”

Adrienne Brown says, 

“once you start practicing on purpose, then you can actually practice liberation and justice and freedom and — then I think you begin to experience the fruit of the practice – peace, awareness, courage, action.  You might not see the miracles you hope to see in your day – total liberation for all people, but you can feel good knowing that you are practicing liberation every single day and in every relationship.” (onbeing.org)  

How do you personally begin to practice whatever’s in alignment with your largest vision or longing?

For my mom and I, I had to realize that the simple act of calling her often – was the practice I needed to engage. To unfold the relationship full of love that I wanted to see fruit…. That I always want to be in season.

Here at Reservoir our five year vision is to create and grow the Beloved Community we are called to be – it’s a big vision. But the practices of being …

  1. Diverse and anti-racist in our every day lives….
  2. Creating welcome and places of profound belonging. .
  3. The ways by which we consider being radically generous.
  4. How we can empower wholeness, love, and justice for those around us – 

All of these are ours to participate in – in our individual lives and here, as a community of practice.

The miracles we need here and now – are not tied to an outcome – of whether we see these visions fruit in our day or not – they are tied to a good, living, life-giving Jesus – and  the miracle is to keep seeking Jesus and believing that our “becoming lives” with Jesus unfold the possible and the impossible, Even us …as agents and practitioners of such miracles.  

Let me pray for us.

Thank you God for the wonder and beauty that you plant inside of us – for the capacity to create and dream for things different and new. Help us God to hunger for you as we vision for a more just world, as we stand on the brink of possibility… near…. And far… and everywhere in between. 

 

Love Is… What Will Save Us

Hey all, I’m Ivy, a pastor here, it is so awesome to be here with you today. 

Today we are still in our “Love Is….” series with next week as our last week – where Pastor Lydia will share some of her thoughts on what love is. For me, this series has been an opportunity to double down on every sermon we’ve ever given.  I mean the heart of our faith, and the hope of any message is really to communicate and invite you into the truth of God’s love.

However, I’ve found it refreshing to shape sermons that start with this truth unabashedly. And I’ve found that it exposes just how hard it is for us to really digest God’s love for us – without exception. It’s hard for us to believe, to remember and to live this out (especially with our “enemies” or those we are in conflict with). 

So this morning I want to talk about how “Love Is… What Will Save Us.” And I will unpack that word “love” a little more, and unpack that word “save” a little more (depending on your faith background, I know the word “save” can be trigger-y…it has been for me). I’ll start with the foundation of God’s nature as love – what that means about us and our essence – and how that unfolds into the world around us.

Along with the qualifier that “love” – as well as “God” – are notoriously difficult to define, (and maybe that’s not really the point anyway), but both are hard to explain, and articulate—and perhaps even harder to embody. And maybe that’s why it’s worth talking about in sermon after sermon after sermon.

Prayer

Well God, we are here for it this morning. We are here for your love. In whatever way you would like to communicate and revive that in us.  For those of us who forget, remind us that all you are is love…and remind us that in your likeness all you can see when you look upon us, when you shine your face upon us – is love. And may that be enough this morning to save us from all the voices that say otherwise. Especially our own. Amen.

At the beginning of this new year, 2022 – along with the Omicron surge, like many of you perhaps, I was just about ready to “give up!” I realized that I had reached a concerning point when I witnessed positive cases rising, hospitalizations off the charts and the decision to close our in-person services once again. And all I felt was numbness.  I couldn’t access all the emotions that I knew were just under the surface – anger, frustration, sadness – I was just numb. I felt defeated. As if the energy, innovation, work, time, thought, care, energy (x2), that I had given out over the last two years (and I know so many of you have too) – to just keep going, with a little hope in my pocket – just didn’t matter.

But somehow, I turned to God in that moment instinctively – maybe as Abel’s sermon suggested a couple weeks ago – like a sunflower turning naturally toward the sun. And I knew to keep going in this New Year that I was going to have to keep God’s face in view – to let God’s face shine upon me if I was going to keep going with any real engagement. And this long-standing practice of “praying the Psalms” came to mind – specifically praying the psalms that focus around God’s face or God’s smile shining upon us. And there are quite a few Psalms that mention this – as a way to “save us.”

I think God knew I needed the Psalms. Because the Psalms are vibrant, and a roller-coaster ride of voices of God’s people, throughout time, who are expressing their rage, joy, confusion, praise, and bewilderment of God’s presence or perceived lack thereof.  Walter Brueggemann, this Old Testament scholar who’s written a lot about the Psalms, says that the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed

by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts….that are at the bottom of our life. And the work of prayer is to bring the boldness of the Psalms and the edge of our experience together… to let them interact, play with each other, tease each other, and illuminate each other.”

And what I’ve found in nearly all 150 Psalms is that at the intersection of the edge of our real lives – and century-old voices, is God. And not just God – but God’s

“steadfast love that endures forever”

as Psalm 136 says. As I pray through the Psalms, I can see people, communities, societies, nations – screaming out at the night sky, asking “where is God?”, saying “I can’t do this anymore,” crying out to be saved. I see the thru-line of hardship, suffering, grief. And I also see the thru-line of God seeking to empower, to inspire and to persuade us in every moment with love… Saving us into love – not saving us from our lives. 

God is actually inviting us to partner with God in the continued creation of our lives. To care about this world to co-create, co-operate, co-labor with God…so that the

“world through us, and God might be saved.”  (John 3:17)

So I want to invite us into a Psalm this morning and see what we experience and discover. But first I want to start with a foundational scripture from Genesis 1:26, that might set us up well for how we can understand our relationship with God and why/how God wants to work with us in this world –versus say powering over us and what that actually means about “the force of love.” It says, 

Genesis 1: 26 (The First Egalitarian Translation)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” 

*There are a few things packed into this one verse that I want to draw your attention to….

  • We see here that God’s selves are already in relation to one another – the use of the plural pronoun “us” gives a nod in that direction.
  • The foundation of God’s self is already in relationship… and that seems important.
  • And so in God’s likeness, in God’s image – ‘we’ – our existence is marked by relationships. 
  • Our very constitution, the way by which we can be the fullest expression of God, is found when we are in relationship to God, the natural world around us, and with one another.
    This is when the fullness of God’s likeness comes into view through us.

And we also see here that our relationship to God – is not just carrying around the image of God within us but it is also responsibility … we are to be stewards of the earth and all that is in it.

Stewardship (meaning not just “to rule and to use”) but to regard our earth and all that is in it with this same relational posture…and to figure out  – how do we give to our earth? Not only consume? 

And in all this what is the nexus of this relationship? Where giving and receiving can be engaged at full force – but will not harm either the giver or the receiver?  Turns out I think it must be LOVE.

Let’s look at Psalm 8 – to flesh it out a bit more. 

Psalm 8

1 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory

    in the heavens.

2 Through the praise of children and infants

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger.

3 When I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

4 what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?

    who are we that you should care for us?

5 You have made us barely less than God,

    and crowned us with glory and honor.

6 You made us responsible for the works of your hands,

    putting all things at our feet – 

7 all flocks and herds,

    and the animals of the wild,

8 the birds in the sky,

    and the fish in the sea,

    all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Now there’s some natural flow (and overlap) in this Psalm to the verse we just read from Genesis. And there’s some depth in there that we can explore in just a second.. But I want to press into this verse 2, that perhaps is one that we might be inclined to skip… 

Through the praise of children and infants

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger.

It just doesn’t make sense – at first blush – how does it fit … Babies? And enemies? And Strongholds? 

It’s worth inspecting because sometimes these verses are the ticket to opening up more – not just about this Psalm per se – but the whole message of God and us.

To me, this verse really establishes God as the mother of all love.  

Infants have a trust, a knowing, a confidence that is birthed with them as they enter the world. A confidence in love, that helps them survive the rupture of delivery.  Their first instinct is to search for and be connected to a source that is good – that is nourishing, and sustaining. It is as if they know they are from this infinite God-source-of-love.

*we know that birth stories are all different and the immediate connection can be thwarted or interrupted*

But that force of love within is what guides their first movement and is perhaps in part what their first cry declares – to be returned to that source of LOVE. 

And the thing is there is nothing that is required. All babies have to do is engage in drinking in that goodness… receiving that flow.  There is nothing of their own will power, or effort that is essential for the establishment of this love to exist – it is already given. 

This verse reminds us that this is true for us too, that 

Romans 5:5the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit of God that has been given to us”.

And we are free to engage, to respond to that force within…ignore it, reject it –  as we see fit.

It seems though, as we do engage… that we access this truest source of love within us and know it as God  even before a set of spiritual beliefs might come into play.  This verse invites us to remember that our relationship of love with God is in our very DNA  – powerful and free, requiring nothing of us.

When we can anchor to that – everything we touch, all of our speech will be birthed with praise, “GOD IS LOVE!”  And that praise, that force of love is powerful enough to dissipate and silence any threat – any enemy, avenger that tries to disrupt that fundamental knowing of love.

This is how the moon and the stars were set in the sky… with this love of God.  This is how we are empowered to steward our relationships and this earth… with this love of God.  This is how incredible WE ARE – that we were formed to hold the force of galaxies, goodness  – LOVE within us as well.  

If I had heard this verse in the context of my faith tradition growing up – it would have been translated for me that we are utterly dependent like babies, that we have no power, we are weak – and we need to be obedient to God because God is an all powerful, all-controlling God. The message would be clear that I’m not born with inherent goodness, and that I would need to grow into the knowledge of God’s love, because I don’t have that internal compass.  

So in my experience, I heard that “God was love,” it was just that God’s love had a ladder – with different rungs. And I needed to work pretty hard to get up those rungs because otherwise I would be floundering in my insufficiency needing saving. 

So love in my context of faith – quickly became something that was definable. Traceable around groups of people, where their expression of love was to be legislated against.  Love was something to be controlled and legitimized … “what and where and with whom” love could exist was a constant conversation.  But love within – love as our essence  – wasn’t.

God’s love was something you strove for – for salvation – because humanity was not made in God’s image. Humanity was a train wreck that needed to be whipped back into shape, into order.  With obedience, discipline and an underlying pervasive fear and belief that you weren’t ever going to be good enough for God. 

I learned that love was unpredictable, risky and indeed powerful… toooo powerful in fact – that it needed to be controlled. I started to wonder though, if what we were losing through that lens wasn’t just our souls – but the transforming, redeeming, powerful force of love that God might suggest would be the very thing that could save us. 

This is why bad theology matters. Because if we read scripture, relate to God, live our lives out of the fundamental belief that we are not good… we will constantly be thrown into the deep waters of shame, guilt, worthlessness, the pursuit of perfection – where we will be gasping to be saved.

Bad theology anchors to a God who is all-controlling. It’s easier to coerce, bully someone into a set of spiritual beliefs to play by… than it is to deposit love into the universe as its primary organizing principle and connect it to a bunch of humans. Releasing the form by which that love will take shape – to the work of our hands…(that’s too risky for many, too uncertain). 

But this is what the good news is.. An uncontrolling love in our hands…at our fingertips.

If we can see that the essence of us is love – that God’s nature is love – that God cannot not love.. Then from this foundation we can read the rest of Psalm 8 with eagerness, with empowerment – with inspiration!  We can start to imagine that we …we could create new things in partnership with God that might help us showcase this love in powerful ways.

Psalm verse 3 says,

3  I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

 If we work with that foundation of everything is love, because

“God is love” (I John 4:8). 

“God’s love in us is seeking to love and be loved and to bring healing and wholeness to our world.” (Rohr)

That feels galaxies big, doesn’t it? HUGE! TOO enormous to fathom.

But in these verses we see the infinite stretch of God’s love – in ways that make the stars and moons feel so untouchable to us. So grand, BILLIONS of stars, not one could be “ours” – we understand the sky to be the canopy that envelops all of us – humanity. AND we situate ourselves sometimes in the insignificance, the smallness of being one among billions of peoples.. And we wonder how could GOD love us  – just so?  In a way that greets us personally?

It seems this has been a central question of humanity:

4 what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?

    who are we that you should care for us?

The theology of my youth – would say that is exactly right.  We aren’t really that much.

God is so powerful, so beyond reach – God is a God out there…  

I remember that not feeling very compelling to me – a God that was really really far away from me. .. how was love then, supposed to feel close?

But when we start with the primary nature of God as all controlling  –  we can’t fully incorporate a loving God.

‘Because love is uncontrolling’. (Oord).

And so we enter into a very separated experience of God, ourselves, and others.  And separation is not powerful at all –  separation in fact, weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression. A separate God is one who does not seek to relate to you, it is a God who is over you seeking for you to change, to prove your “goodness,” your “discipline,” your “perfection” (which is a figment of the colonial imagination), all in efforts to then be saved. Saved unto what? A grid of rules? Doctrines that are hollow – formed by fear? 

No wonder that the writer of John wrote

“in perfect love there is no fear”.

The opposite of fear is not fearlessness, it is love. In love you can be afraid, but there is something deeper in love than there is in the hollowness of fear. – Padraig O’Tuama

But here in this Psalm we find the depth of love…and the width and the height of God’s love. God established the placement of each moon and each star with care, with love.  It wasn’t just (all) random…not a scatter shot. God embedded in the very design of the universe the energy of love and relationship. Many scientists have pointed this out, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who also was a  Jesuit priest  – that love is

“the very physical structure of the Universe.” That, gravity, atomic bonding, planets, orbits, cycles, photosynthesis, ecosystems, force fields, electromagnetic fields,

and evolution all reveal an energy that is attracting all things and beings to one another, in

a movement toward ever greater complexity and diversity—and yet ironically also toward unification at ever deeper levels. This energy is quite simply love under many different forms.” (Rohr)

And the energy is not IN the planets, or IN the atomic particles – the energy is found in the relationship between them. 

It is from this truth that we can shout (as the children and babies did), “HOW MAJESTIC is your name God!”  Not only because God is so powerful   – but because we get it – we get the closeness of this design in everything to be relational… and with Love as the powerful force, it doesn’t seem so far out of reach actually.  In fact, we feel resourced to act and move in our lives with the same far out, creative energy that hangs over our head in the skies  – because then it feels as present as relating to, and loving our neighbor. 

It’s then not too much of a stretch to imagine that “with care, with favor, with delight…. God shines God’s face upon us.”

5 You have made us barely less than God,

    and crowned us with glory and honor.

6 You made us responsible for the works of your hands,

    putting all things at our feet   

God adores us so much that God invites us to partner in caring for, loving and creating this world.  We have much to do. But it is helpful to remember that

Love is not really an action that you do. Love is what and who you are.” (Rohr)

“And time and time again we will forget that this is true – and we will lean into the desperation that accompanies believing otherwise.” (20) – Candice Marie Benbow.

AND this is what we need saving from –  voices that come against this truth – our own internal voices, our history, trauma, experiences – story, society, structures, systems – all these foes and avengers ….but God has called us  – humanity – to be its highest self via this flow of love, and to shake free these voices that demand us to be more

perfect to receive God’s love, because God already loves Godself in us and therefore we are perfectly lovable.” (Rohr)

“A hope, a purpose of theology is to clarify the central, foundational, nature of God, at the center of everything – is LOVE. God has done only one constant thing since the beginning of time: God has always forever, without hesitation, loved “God’s child” (Rohr),

US!,  creation, the moon and the stars … the herds, the flocks, the birds, the fish

 AND! God wants us to be a part of  all of it – not just a separate “part” – but a conjoined partner  …. This is how we create – grow Beloved Community. 

As I sat with this psalm with my spiritual director this week – the first thought to hit me was

“oh no – so much responsibility – so much work..to do on this earth.”

But then I remembered that last Sunday morning on my way into the building, I tried to practice “keeping God’s face in view,” as I had declared at the start of the new year. And I paused outside, it was snowing like crazy, and I heard a bird nearby… singing a song so loud, it was kind of out of place, it was a spring song by a male cardinal.

I stopped and looked for it, and it was in the tree just outside, so gorgeously red – so big and fluffy and full –  in a bare tree with snow falling all around. It was stunning… it hit me squarely in the heart and I smiled – and just stood there for a few minutes . . knowing that that was God and God’s love to me. 

I felt the saving grace of it. I wasn’t in turmoil. But it steadied me for the hours to come where 200 donuts intended for our service were lost and delivered not on this campus, and it saved me from feeling like I was a mess up when I couldn’t get home in time to be part of something on the homefront… and that’s the tiniest and biggest truths about God’s love – so personal and so mysterious.

This is the demanding, powerful force of love that can overcome us – can transform us and everything we touch. And it will be the force that saves us from falling into the characteristics of work here on earth that can become more striving than fulfilling, more of a grind than a passion expressed, more of a meter of our worth than an extension of who we already are.

There are thousands of moments throughout our days that will try to avenge us – tear us down – separate us from God’s love within. But there are also billions and billions of droplets of God’s love that are placed with care (as God does the stars in the sky), with attention, with personal whim… just for you to encounter. So much so that if you could turn around and look at your life you would see a trail of stardust formed in the most beautiful constellation of you and God. We cannot find salvation outside of the powerful force of God’s love.  

Prayer

Save us, O God.

Help us to remember that your name indeed is majestic in all the earth.

Help us to remember that we were created as love.

Help us to establish the work of our hands.

Drench them in your love, reminding us that we hold in our hands the power/the energy/and force to place a star in the sky – and love in the heart of another.

Amen.

The Good Life | Full of Wonder

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

One of the (many) things about young kids that I find so breathtaking, is that they really know how to love, and they really know how to be fully alive, present to what is in front of them.  AND if you’ve been around little kids – you know they make this known, by embodying this way of living and loving.  Where none of that looks like perfection and none of it is secured by them – by way of taught knowledge, or by way of being bought or built,  and none of it is rigid, or defined. The way that many kids love and live, is messy, vulnerable, unruly – and yet alltogether compelling…

And also, if we are honest –  totally unnerving … because it means you never really know what you are going to get! But you do know that whatever it is, you’ll likely get it at 100%!

What’s going to come out of their mouths, how close they’ll get to you – what questions they’ll ask – is often unpredictable.
I felt that this last Sunday on Halloween… as a couple hundred kids made their way up our front steps… And, as part of the trick or treat exchange, I tried to ask each kid, “How’s your night going?”

And at varying degrees of social distance violations, I got a myriad of answers:

  • The first with one kid, pulling their lollipop out of their mouth, and pointing it at my mouth – answered by saying: “Why is your tooth so yellow?”
  • Another answering by saying, “Uuuugh, can I sit here – my feet are killing me!?”
  • “Ahhh, my night is mostly really bad, but some good.”
  • “I don’t like Almond Joys – can I have a Twix?”

And there it is – this childlike-ness – this in your face, unfiltered, seemingly off-point, utterly vulnerable, and honest spirit.  A spirit that I find myself longing for these days – because it seems like this way of being – opens our view of  the world, of God – each other – that can hold a lot of mystery and complexity – something that I feel lacking in.

Kids show us that to love, unabashedly. And to live fully (with all the layers of life in view) is actually the “good life” we have all already inherited by God. And yet one that we often strive to still obtain.

So this morning I’m going to talk about childlike faith – and how this instrument of wonder opens our faith, grows our faith, and keeps our faith healthy.  OPENING us into more joy, more laughter, more hope – all while taking in the messiness of this life – that isn’t all sweet.

This is the only way I could imagine honoring Kim Messenger today – to invite us all to reflect & revisit what a childlike faith can offer us – not just the children among us. And so invite you to reclaim wonder – if you feel like you are lacking in it or have lost it as the yeast of your faith.

God – help us this morning, to take in all of life.  Help us to get in touch with where we are at right now, in this present moment – are we feeling open? Shut down? Numb? Disinterested? Full of faith, low on faith?…  Help us to move into this conversation with you this morning…   Thank you, Jesus.

Over the past year and half, I’ve returned to this notion of “child-like” faith again and again. I’ve  looked at it, entertained it, recognizing at arm’s length that it is exactly the invitation of Jesus’ that would be helpful to return to.

But I just couldn’t get there – somewhere in the pandemic, my capacity to hold all the hard – and squint for a luster of wonder, felt like too much.

And that is a little disorienting for me. Because the lenses of wonder and beauty are often more my inclination – but they’ve felt in many ways irresponsible, maybe even harmful – given the scope of chaos, violence, racism, and death in our landscape. Wide-eyed wonder, childlike faith – what place could it take in the midst of overwhelming catastrophe? The answer wasn’t clear to me, and the stakes too high. So I think I’ve just suspended it.  Because I could fall back on the elements of my faith that I KNOW – scripture and prayer –  with some regularity.

Childlike faith, however, seems to be a lot less about answers – and actually all about the “stakes” of life.

A lot about courage – because it asks us to go beyond our set of known “beliefs” about God (who God is), and summons our will to wonder and create with God (as a way of knowing God).

Rabbi Abraham Heschel says it’s

“not that we lack a will to believe – it’s that we lack a will to wonder.”

To be alive in the story of God means daring to wonder as much as we say we “believe.” 

And that’s scary. Because to wonder means we are entering into something that can shake everything up – AND it doesn’t ask permission to grow inside of you. It just goes – and it takes everything in its path with it. Everything we’ve understood, everything we think we know, everything we’ve stored in our hearts, everything we’ve felt in our bodies, everything we’ve once dreamt about.  It’s called into question by WONDER. But it’s also called back to life. And this holds the potential to resurrect us (in ways we’ve shut down and maybe prefer) and break us open into new fields and realms ensuring nothing except the goodness and love of God at our every turn.

Jesus has something to say about childlike faith – here in the scripture of Luke – read along with me as it comes up on slides:

Luke 18: 15 – 23 (Common English Bible)

15 People were bringing babies to Jesus so that he would bless them. When the disciples saw this, they scolded them.

16 Then Jesus called them to him and said, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kin-dom belongs to people like these children.

17 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kin-dom like a child will never enter it.”

18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain/inherit eternal life?”

19 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 20 You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.”

21 Then the ruler said, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

22 When Jesus heard this, he said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”

23 When he heard these words, the man became sad because he was extremely rich.

Now, I wonder, as you hear this story, what part of this story is the most important to you? 

The most important part to me (today) is this question that the ruler asks Jesus,

“How can I inherit the “good life/eternal life”?”

It’s an honest question perhaps.

.And an interesting question – because it seems like the young ruler might have missed the answer that Jesus already offered….He says,

“Let the children come to me.”

This answer though of Jesus’ to the young ruler is probably similar to my Halloween experience  “wait, what?” Did you even answer that question?

“Little children – eternal life?” WHAT?

What “good thing(s)” do I need to do? To SECURE & obtain my spot in the kin-dom of heaven?

Jesus is generous here and calls out what the young ruler does know these  commandments that encapsulate loving your neighbor:

Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.”

The young ruler, is like

“yes – yes – I’ve known these commandments, I’ve kept them since I was a child. Since I was these kid’s age. I have scrupulously observed these duties.”

“Then what do I lack?” (in Matthew’s version)

Jesus answers by showing – calling his attention to what is in front of his face… these children…

“Watch them,” “See how they approach me,”. .. “Come directly to me”

  • With their messy, sticky selves
  • Their toddling steps…
  • With their curiosities and excitement about the dog they met on the way..
  • The pain in their stubbed toe

They come to me with all of it..

“They know love when they see it. They know they belong to me. 

They have already inherited the kin-dom.

They embody the commandments. The ones you have known since you were a boy – and they embody the ones you have yet to “wonder” your way into – “That’s loving me – loving your God with all of your heart, mind and soul…”

“You don’t lack the will to believe – you lack the will to let go, (yes – of your possessions , your privilege, your training, your disciplines)  AND You lack the will to let go unto wonder.

Wonder – the instrument that brings these commandments, these lessons – into your real life. With real people.

Two weeks ago as part of our staff meeting, Kim invited us to sit in tiny kid chairs and on the floor, of the 2nd floor MC. To hear her tell a Godly Play story – the story of “The Great Family”: of Abraham and Sarah and God, And all of us – the lineage & the beginnings of our faith….which actually are about childlike faith…

These Godly Play story’s hang on the platform of “wonder” as the means by which spiritual formation takes seed.  However, this wondering doesn’t sugarcoat or skip any of the reality of life. In fact, it dives right into it all – trusting the power of childlike faith can hold. A faith that can stand in this gritty life, and look up at the sky – and still feel

“God come so close to us, and us so close to God – that we know God is with us, (blessing us) in this place,”

wherever and whatever we are standing in. 

The story Kim told of this Great Family’s journey – and of them getting to know God – is QUITE A STORY.  It embraces humility, uncertainty, suffering, scary stuff.

In fact, the starting point of this story, as she told it, is in the setting of a desert. And the words to follow are not a light rendering-

“The desert is a dangerous place, there is no water in the desert, and people cannot live without water or food for very long.. .no one goes into the desert unless they have to…”

This is the landscape of faith that kids get to wonder about.. (It’s not a cozy cabin with Jesus in front of the fire). 

And kids are like,

“ ooo yes – I get that. Sounds a lot like life.” 

And then as Kim continued she outlines that Abraham & Sarah were “this one family that believed that there was

“one God, and that all of God was in everything”

– and she goes on to say,

“they didn’t know if this was true” – but that is what they believed.”

“And soon the time came for Abraham and Sarah to move from a KNOWN land to an UNKNOWN land, and “they didn’t know if God would be with them in this new place or not.”   

The stage of faith – as kids will hear it – encompasses messy unknowing – not “absolutes.”

And kids are like,

“Yes – I get that. A lot of what I’ve had to do in this life is new, and unknown to me.”

And then as Kim continues and we follow Abraham and Sarah on their journey with God – from Or to Hebron.. We journey along too – into unexpected friendships, to promise, to loneliness, to laughter, to death, to burial in caves. To GROWTH , to NEW LIFE  – and as the story goes – WE SEE generations and generations of faith TAKE SHAPE AS many “as there are stars in this sky, and as many as there are grains of sand in the desert.”

This is the inheritance of our faith.  IT’s BIG.

And kids are like – oh, yah I get all of that…I’m sad sometimes, people die, things are funny, *and I especially like caves!*

Childlike faith can hold the paradoxes that come along our journey with God. It may be WONDROUS. It WILL BE MESSY. It is MEANT TO leave us humbled saying “I DON”T KNOW!”

Full of questions – about everything –  God,  ourselves, and our world. We are meant to ask like kids do-

“Why?” “But why?” “How come?”

Because this world is a wild, and dangerous place – just like the desert – and there’s a lot to wonder about.

God seems to say,

“come to me.”

Climb up into my lap, whenever you want – and I will kiss your head and bless you. And we can find each other anew – again and again and again..

This story reminded me that Abraham and Sarah’s faith – the Great Family’s faith – our faith

“has nothing to do with believing the right stuff or continuing to learn new, esoteric things about theology until we die.” (Dave Schmelzer) 

It all boils down to

being open to wonder –  to hold the mystery that God isn’t just in this place, or that place, or in this set of rules, or these particular commandments, or for just these “mature” Christians –  but ALL of God IS everywhere.

Abraham never did become a wealthy landowner in the new land, right – his journey with God wasn’t about OBTAINING the good life? It was about embracing his inheritance as one blessed by the presence and goodness of God at every turn along the journey.

Each Godly Play session ends with wondering questions… like,

I wonder where you are in this story?

I think Jesus is posing this same question to the young ruler,

“I wonder where are you in this story? This story of faith, and love and of God? And of growing the kin-dom?”

Are you dipping your toe in? Are you drooling and sticky with vulnerability and wonder on your face – fully immersed?   – or are you hidden behind your racks of money, and trophies of righteousness and power?

From a very young age, this young ruler had stayed the course. He had read the directions, followed them to a T – he had built his faith.  He was so “good.”  But he had never moved. He hadn’t started the journey,  moved into the wilds of life – where faith comes fully alive – nor had he moved closer to God.

Our spiritual growth depends, paradoxically, on regaining a child’s perspective. We have to regularly start anew with wonder  –  we have to return to God, again and again – and say, “can you bless me?”   I just need that touchpoint – can you bless me?

Growth in faith – isn’t about obtaining more  or certain knowledge that ensures the good life – it’s about imagining that God loves you so much that the inheritance of the good life is available here and now.

Growth in faith – isn’t only to do the things you think God wants you to do – it’s about wondering if there are things that you and God might like to do, create, be, unfold, question, upturn – together. 

The barometer of our faith is not our MORAL UPRIGHTNESS – it seems like that as a focus separates us from the real life – and from a real God.

The barometer of our faith is our willingness to ask whether the messiness of our faith and the messiness of our life can really be the good life – and whether or not we can cling tightly to God as we let go of the need for a direct answer – and instead live out the answers as we grow & open ourselves to wonder.

Childlike faith allows us to see everything that is in front of our faces and draw close to God in the midst of it all.

STORY OF REED

Last weekend, I went to my 13 year-old’s soccer game.  At this age the team & coaches are on one side of the field – and parents are on the opposite side.  At halftime my son started jogging to the parent side of the field- and I was curious.  And as he got close to the sideline, he said “hey mom come here.” So I just took a couple of casual steps in his direction.

Which wasn’t enough for him, and he waved me closer,

“saying come here – come here…”

So I got really close to him – and he said,

“Can you pray for my hamstring?”

*Reed knows what to do if he has a tight hamstring – it’s not new territory – stretch, drink water, keep your muscles warm.

So I knew right away that the request for prayer was less about the expectation for a loosened hamstring as an answer  – and was more about being close to love. Following the draw of love for just a touchpoint, going to the love that is in front of his face.. And seeing that in and of itself is the answer to prayer. *the wonder of love and the wonder of God everywhere.

I heard his request as,

“Can you just bless me at this moment?  Can you just love me?”

*And this moment was less about Reed – and more about me & God. And returning to God anew with childlike-ness.

“Come follow me”

Jesus says to the rich ruler. Come follow me into love and wonder.

This is the sheer wisdom of what Kim has implanted in the youngest of kids here at Reservoir. She has offered not just a program of Godly Play, but she’s offered to these kids an inheritance, a sense of profound belonging as a child of God. And she has placed in the laps of every child their birth rights – of wonder & of love – which seems to be all of our greatest ways forward in this beautiful and messy life.

When Kim finished sharing the story of the “Great Family” she ended by blessing each of us by name – One by one, by one, returning us to childlike faith

So I’d love for us to end by blessing Kim Messenger  – raise your hands toward her if you’d like …

“Jesus in your goodness and wonder.  would you bless Kim Messenger. The life that she has led and the life and journey that is still ahead, the known & the unknown and foster the deep childlike wonder within her. 

We bless you – Kim Messenger.

I can’t bless you all by name right now.

But I invite you to put your hand on your heart, as a way to close in prayer.
With all the wonder in your heart, imagine Jesus near you – calling you by name,  blessing you, loving you…

Amen.

 

“…The Holy Spirit…The Communion of Saints…”

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

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

That’s the creed a church in Atlanta used to say weekly. Let’s get there, and if you like, you can say it with me at the end of this time. 

Grace and I sent our daughter off to college last year, several states away. What a weird year to send your kid out into the world, right? 

I mean, we’re really proud of her. She finished her year, got good grades, made friends, learned things about herself and her interests, on and on. We’re really proud of her. But what a weird year to be sent out into the world on your own for the first time. You’re told make new friends, have adventures, you’re in the prime of your life, but also, don’t hang out indoors, don’t leave campus, don’t touch anyone, wear a mask or two.

You’re told you’re here for the most powerful learning experiences you can imagine, to find your passions, find a career, learn to make a difference in the world. And that’ll happen somehow by taking classes online from your closet-sized room where you sit with your computer and your thoughts, all by yourself

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a brand new young adult.

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a lot of us. I spent a lot of time on the phone this past year, more time on the phone than ever in my life, or at least ever since I was a teenager. And I heard a lot of stories about fear and loneliness. 

Even with the governor. A few of us from GBIO, our interfaith justice organizing group, had a call with the governor to advocate for some justice and mercy measures during the pandemic. But as people of faith, we started out by asking him how he was doing and how we could pray for him. He was clearly under a lot of stress and pressure at the time, and it struck us how lonely his work had become, how he missed the handshakes and hugs and human contact that are big parts of his life in regular times. Even one of the richest, most powerful people in our state gets lonely and scared during a pandemic. 

Some of us discovered during the pandemic that with the help of God and friends, we can face hard times and do well. We found we had each other and we were not alone. 

But some of us found that we were a lot more alone than we wanted to be. And maybe we wonder what to do about that. 

And some of us are realizing that it’s not easy to shake off our fears. There’s plenty of scary news, COVID and otherwise, that’s still part of our lives – private and public – and we wonder how we can be less afraid. If we can be less afraid.

Today I want to explore a little how a person of faith can be connected and feel less alone and maybe even a little less afraid. 

I’ve been teaching through the Apostles’ Creed this summer, one of the shortest and oldest summaries of the Christian faith. And I’ve had my reasons for doing this, as I’ve talked about – as I’ve both affirmed and quibbled with the language of this creed, trying to suggest ways to bring it up to date with our science and experiences and faith and doubt we have in our era.

But with today’s section, I want to just enjoy the holy resources it points us to to be less afraid and less alone in the world. 

So I’ll read the parts of the creed I’ve taught the past six weeks I’ve preached and then today’s section as well.

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

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…

So this part of the creed has this holy, holy, holy trifecta. Holy Spirit, holy church, communion of saints, which literally just means holy people. Same root. I believe in holy spirit, holy church, holy people. What does that sound like to you? 

Holy means beautiful and different and awesome all bound together. It’s what we sense or experience that evokes wonder – like the power of the waves at the seashore, or the intimacy of sex with a beloved partner, or the sense you have if you believe in God that there is a spirit of perfect love and wisdom that knows our name and smiles at the thought of us. 

Wholly holy…

My daughter and I have been watching the new Aretha Franklin series from National Geographic and listening to a voice like hers, or hearing Cynthia Erivo, the actress cover her songs, I mean the unworldly power and soul of a voice like that doing its thing, that’s holy.

The creed invites us to believe that God’s presence with us, God’s spirit, is holy. And that the ways God is with us, the means of God’s presence are holy too. In particular, the ways we are here for each other, the universal church that gathers in the name of Jesus, the communion of people who love Jesus, scattered across place and time, that’s holy too. 

There’s an irony for some of us in that many of us have seen versions of the Christian church or experienced versions of Christian community that have been anything but holy – that have been hollow or empty or shaming or dysfunctional or abusive – not the kind of stuff that fills us with beauty and wonder and awe and love at all. 

I think of Aretha Franklin’s life herself – a woman born into a family and a faith full of love and liberation and beauty and strength. But also a family and a faith that was scrapping for survival and that was abusive and hypocritical too.

Not wholly holy. 

So perhaps the creed isn’t telling us the whole story of how it always is but calling us to possibility –to the way things can be or should be. Maybe it’s inviting us to look for the ways God can be with us through God’s church and God’s people, to believe in and lean into the ways we can be less scared and less alone, and more whole, in this community and in this faith. 

This week, this hope reminded me of a little beginning in one of the New Testament’s little letters. Most of the letters in the New Testament are written to communities of faith, but this one called II Timothy is written to a person of faith, to a very young pastor of a community. And the beginning has these words. 

II Timothy 1:3-7 (Common English Bible)

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night.

4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness.

5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.

6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands.

7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

The writer is telling Timothy to remember God is with you, through many means. Timothy’s been sad, and like most leaders, he’s probably been lonely sometimes. There is mention of tears. Like most young leaders, most leaders period to be real, he’s been scared sometimes. There’s mention of this “spirit that is timid or afraid” that Timothy wants to find his way past. 

But the writer – we’ll go with the tradition for a moment, and call him Paul – Paul tells Timothy God is within you. God is in you. And God’s gift to you isn’t money or status or any other kind of stuff, it’s just all that is holy God. It’s the internal love and dynamism of God within you, and it’s the self-control, the self-leadership that can empower. 

Paul doesn’t just tell Timothy to stop crying and stop being timid and buck up and be strong. And he doesn’t tell his mentee to just have more faith in this God who is with him by God’s Holy Spirit. 

What he does do is remind a young leader that God’s presence is there through many means and that God’s presence invites noticing. Faith in God doesn’t just occur, it needs some paying attention and tending and reviving; it needs leaning into. 

Thankfully, there are many means by which this faith in God with us can be stirred. 

Here are just a few of the means Paul mentions for knowing God’s loving, empowering presence. 

There are the holy ancestors. Paul writes this letter of encouragement not just by himself but in the faith and the strength of ancestors who preceded him. And he encourages Timothy not just as a solitary person alone in the world, but as a young person whose mother and grandmother were people of love and faith.

Timothy’s line probably wasn’t all goodness and light to him, just like our families and ancestors aren’t either. Maybe Timothy’s dad was absent, physically or emotionally. Maybe his brother was mean, maybe his sister did him wrong, maybe his other grandmother was cruel. But he has ancestors, as do Paul, maybe biological, maybe unrelated by people of his faith or his culture or his community who preceded them and whose strength and love and faith is gifted to them across generations. Holy ancestors are means of God’s loving, empowering presence to us all.

There are the holy prayers. Paul prays for Timothy, his mentee, whenever he thinks of him. And that’s a means of loving encouragement. None of us know precisely how prayer works, but when we become part of a church, people start praying for us. I know this because I pray for you all when I think of you. Often very short prayers, but pastors do this, pray for people whose names and lives greet us in memories and meetings and emails and texts. And I co-lead two community groups in this church and just about every week we meet, just about each person is prayed for by name. And God’s listening, and we’re listening, and this is another way we know God’s loving, empowering presence to us all. 

There are holy, vulnerable and authentic relationships. Paul and Timothy know each other well enough, they’ve been real enough, trustworthy and safe enough with each other that tears have been shed in one another’s presence, and they know the names of each other’s family. In our emotionally distant, shut down culture, how many men are open enough, close enough that they’ve cried in each other’s presence. In our transitory world, who knows the names of our family? Whose family names do we know? Holy friendship, that just offers non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, openness, this is a big way we get less alone in the world. 

There is the holy spirit of God within us Paul says Timothy, don’t forget. It’s there. And there are holy memories. The memory of people who you love and who love you. The memories of key moments where God seemed real and good, like for Timothy, that time Paul put his hands on his shoulders in front of the little church and commissioned him to lead with love and humility and wisdom and faithfulness. 

Our lives are full of troubles and fears and lonely corners of the life that aren’t quite the ones we want. All that’s real. But we have memories too, memories of experiences that told us we’d be OK, and we are seen and loved and we are not alone. And these holy memories are means of knowing how holy God sees and loves us. 

And there is lastly the holiness of reunion. Paul says

I long to see you. I long to see you.

The longing to see the one we cannot see was real to us all this past year and a half. And sometimes the longing is all we’ve got, and longing can be holy too, even the wanting of togetherness can make us feel a little less alone and a little more alive.

But then there’s the leaning in when it’s possible too, the leaning into togetherness. The premade decision to keep showing up for your neighbors or your friends or your church community group, because in the keep showing up, you know you’ll be a holy encouragement to someone else, and in the keeping showing up, you’ll put in the time that lets others start to be holy encouragement to you too. 

Now let me say again, in all these things I’m talking about – in ancestors, in families, in faith traditions, in churches and memories and prayers and togetherness, there can be so much that is not holy. That keeps distance, that judges, that shames, that uses, that leaves one another empty and emptied and cold and sometimes even more scared and more alone than we were in the first place.

Most of the best things in life, when they lack love and kindness and safety, can be some of the worst things too. That’s real. The means by which we can know God is with us, and be left feeling more love and power internally, only work when we’re safe and kind and lean into non judgemental, loving presence. That’s just a truth of life. 

But with these things, church can be holy, and knowing we are part of a communion of holy people – imperfect, messy, authentic, beautiful, loving, wise, encouraging people, both living and dead, can make us feel God is with us, and help us feel less scared and less alone. 

As people of faith, that have some kind of connection to this church – whether it’s your community, or you’re passing through, or you’re checking it out and figuring out how involved or uninvolved or involved you want to be –  this is the best possibility of this place, or some other place like it. 

The holy church, and holy communion of people helping make present and real an experience of the holy, loving God. 

How do we lean in? How do we give and receive this experience? How do we practice the RADICAL RELATIONALITY of this faith in Jesus? 

How can we experience belonging and mattering? Community, shared purpose, accountability and transformation – personally and socially? 

How can we be a communion of saints to one another?

Let me highlight, underscore again, three of the ways.

One is through our own memory and attention. Many of the things we’ve talked about today are things we can remember and pay attention to or that we can forget, ignore, take for granted, or miss. Last week, in the spiritual practice I led in our in-person service, we practiced the examen prayer, the first half of which is to notice where we’ve found life in the past day and to express gratitude. I’ve been doing this more or less daily, or at least intending to, for 3 or 4 years. It’s changed me.

For the second time in my life, I’m doing this #100daysofgratitude thing on my Instagram and Facebook. Noticing each day and sharing it publicly a person or memory or experience I’m grateful for, remembering and paying attention to ancestors and people who love me and I love, and delights and learning experiences and everything that is holy, holy, holy and reminds me I’m not alone and God is good. 

I don’t do this because I’m a naturally grateful person. Kind of the opposite. I’m not a naturally grateful and attentive person. I have to lean into this intentionally. 

But doing so gets me in touch with the truth that I’m loved by God and that through the communion of saints and the holy church, Holy Spirit is with me, inviting me to hope and joy and greater life. This makes me a less resentful person, a less anxious person, a more content person. And that feels good to me. 

That’s personal. You can do that first one by yourself. The next two need other people. They need the whole communion of saints. 

We practice the radical relationality of this faith through authentic togetherness. There’s no other way. Faith in a loving God, experience of a Spirit who is with you is not a solo sport but a team sport. That’s the cheesiest line ever, but it’s also true. 

To be less alone and less scared and to have the goodness of all the holy, holy, holy, we need each other. Saturday mornings, I gather with 5, 10, 15 or you just about every week. We study the Bible, and have a really interesting time of that, but beforehand, we hear how we’re finding life or how our lives could be better and we offer listening ears and supportive prayers. People keep it pretty real, and I always end feeling more connected and less alone.

I do this other places too – in a Thursday night group, with a couple pastor buddies I meet up with every 2 weeks, and a couple Grace and I talk to on the phone a lot. And then I live with 4 other people too, at least parts of the year now.

But as we found during pandemic, living with other people is no guarantee that those relationships will be means to be less scared and alone and get the beauty and power and strength of love in your life. It all depends, doesn’t it? It depends on whether we can show up for one another with that non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, and openness. In my household, we’re all still a mixed bag on this front. 

So we each try our best. I try to be a more curious, attentive, nonjudgemental person. The kind of person it would be safer to cry around, the kind of person someone would long to be with when we’re apart. I pray for help from God in this. My housemates, in my case family, have their own stories in this too, which are up to them, and I think we all mostly try our best. But me, I only control me, right, just like all of us? And that helps this thing along too.

Lastly, I believe that to get the holy, holy, holy community that helps us know the power and fellowship of a holy God, we need to hang in with a tradition. 

We need living people we aren’t related to or wouldn’t naturally just meet as friends. 

We need people much older than us and much younger than us, which faith communities are unusually good at helping us connect with, if we’re willing.

We need dead people – memories of our own ancestors, sure, but also the best wisdom of traditions that span back centuries and more. 

We need rituals and worship and songs and prayers and scriptures that help us think about and experience the transcendent source of life, truth, beauty, and love.

In my case, I firmly believe that I need the teaching and practice and life and ongoing living presence of Jesus Christ, who shows us what God looks like and offers us guidance toward abundant life. 

It’s hard to invent a whole religion. It’s hard to get all these things without hanging in with a tradition and a faith and a faith community – even if it’s got sore spots that need healing and broken spots that need mending and wrong things and outdated things that need updating and righting. 

This is obviously very much the mission of Reservoir Church –  to walk faithfully in the ancient faith tradition of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and to keep innovating and involving and growing so that faith can guide and serve 21st century people who believe in making a more just and loving world. 

Our tradition keeps doing simple and beautiful things, like this old creed we’re exploring this summer that invites us to lean in toward holy God through holy church and holy people. And like this new creed we started with, penned by Dr. Kathi Martin, a queer, Black, disabled minister who founded the God, Self, Neighbor community in Atlanta. 

It goes like this again:

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

Say it with me if you like.

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

From Suffering to Hope

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

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.

Let me pray for us.

Loving God, you have brought each of us here today to this moment, for a reason. We come into this space from many different places. Some of us, rushing in to hear the word, some of us with open curiosity, some of us with much doubt or even suspicion. No matter how we may find ourselves this morning, we pray that we may be honest to our hearts in this moment, and discover the love that you have poured into our hearts, through the spirit. we pray, in Jesus name.

Amen.

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God.

3 Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;

4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.

5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.


Peace be with you. We have here our text today, a life of peace with God. It lays out a life description of movement from suffering to hope. From Suffering to Hope is the title of my sermon today, but how? How do I take you through from suffering to hope? Shall I make you suffer first?

I’ve been reading a book called The Book of Joy. It’s a book capturing a five-day meeting between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. For them, the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is their utmost holy figure, a patron saint, a Christlike figure in the Buddhist tradition. Desmond Tutu is an archbishop, a Christian, in South Africa, a human rights activist and theologian notably during the time of apartheid in South Africa – which apartheid, literally meaning ‘apart-hood’, like neighborhood but ‘apart’. It “was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s”. 90’s ya’ll, the 90’s.

After many seasons in my life of engaging suffering and grief, I needed some knowhow around joy. And not just fa-la-la joy, but true joy, deep joy. Grounding joy. Not busy distracting myself joy but peace-joy. And joy in the face of real injustice. Joy without ignoring the problem. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it this way,

“Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

Hardship without becoming hard. Heartbreak without being broken. Ooh I want that.

‘Cause joy that doesn’t answer to real suffering doesn’t really matter. So this book I thought maybe could get me closer, through two figures who literally have been exiled and fought the oppression of their own people. I wanted the secret to joy from folks who have been through some stuff.

If you haven’t suffered, it’s not a good idea to give advice about how to deal with suffering. No one can tell another how to deal with their suffering. But we do this all the time, to try to be helpful. We often try to offer solutions instead of just listening and validating their pain. The biggest no no is trying to give meaning or purpose to someone else’s suffering. And that’s where I want to start, what not to do with this text we have today.

I have two points. Point one: let’s not use this text to tell someone how to cope with suffering. And point two: if you get to witness suffering turning into perseverance, and perseverance turning into character and character turning into hope–that is a gift and miracle from God.

So point one. Churches, especially from places of privilege and power, have used this verse and verses like it to those who are suffering as a way to placate those who are oppressed. And while I do believe that this text has some meaning or value to offer, to jump to it as a quick resolution to someone in pain is not helpful. “Glory in suffering?” You want me to be happy about this bad thing that happened?

It’s unfortunately reminiscent of other texts in the Bible, which also has been widely misused, like

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ”

in Ephesian 6:5, along with,

“Wives, obey your husbands as you obey the Lord.”

in Ephesian 5:22. Which, by the way, most biblical scholars are fairly conclusive that Ephesians is a “deutero-Pauline,” a fancy way of saying that it wasn’t written by Paul.

Ancient writings in the style of their teacher was not an unusual practice. It was actually a way of honoring, continuing the great ministry and theology of Paul. But I’ll be honest, when I first learned that the first five books of the Bible weren’t written by Moses himself, and Paul has pseudo writers, I did experience a level of losing my faith going, “What! The Bible’s a fraud!” But, after you get through the initial shock and learn from professors who’ve spent decades studying this explain in detail how they analyze and interpret ancient texts like this, your faith expands and grows to be able to hold the complexity, the depths of human history and traditions that try to contain the mysteries of God in their lives. This is all the more reason why we should not use random verses out of context and apply it to our lives.

Don’t tell me suffering produces perseverance. Do you know what I’ve been through? You would make me persevere in this maddening injustice? Don’t tell me it produces character. I don’t want character. Let me do it to you and see if it builds your character. They say it’s like a metal in fire, getting stronger. Really, God? Why do you keep putting me in the fire? It’s hot.

Instead of changing our world of eradicating systemic injustice, we say, “what doesn’t kill ya, makes you stronger!” But the thing is, sometimes, it doesn’t produce perseverance. Sometimes it produces cynicism. Sometimes, it just hurts and keeps hurting no matter how long it’s been. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder. Sometimes the burden is so heavy, the suffering so great and the problem so sophisticated and complex that instead of building character turns a person to depression. Sometimes, the suffering is so crippling and the trauma upon trauma so insidious that there seems to be no way out. Sometimes, suffering leads to hopelessness.

What do we do with that?
I don’t know.

The formula makes it seem like I need to persevere, build my endurance, fix my character, and then I can obtain hope. But even Paul, he wasn’t offering this as advice. He said, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It was a reminder of something they went through together. The whole text is in plural 1st person, we and us. He’s able to speak like this, because they know each other’s pain and have journeyed through it together.

If you happen to have experienced or know or have seen suffering producing hope, you know that it is not because of some straightforward formula, suffering + perseverance * character = hope. It’s because at every step of the way there was a thing called grace. In the midst of deep nonsensical suffering, a sudden gift of renewed strength. In the deep rock bottom of the void, a glimmer of a voice that said, “look up” that came from nowhere. In the places where you felt like you were just the scum of the earth, surrounded in your own filth with no motivation to pick yourself back up, someone came and grabbed your hand and lifted you up.

This is my point two. You know what stands out to me about this text? Not the formula part, that’s often most quoted and used. It’s the stuff around that text that undergirds it. It says “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”

All of it is by grace. Grace, something undeserving. Something that doesn’t make any sense. It defies cause and effect. It does not compute. It’s not calculated, it has no reason, it’s not supposed to happen but it does. Grace.

Hope? Hope is not a product of suffering. The product of suffering should be something bad but hope, hope is a miracle. Hope is a gift.

Whether in your life or another person’s life, whether the suffering was self-inflicted or inflicted on them, all we can do if we see the miracle of hope at work in the midst of suffering is, be in awe.

How did that hope come about? It says it is “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Not because we worked hard to get out of our suffering, but because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts.

We don’t get to tell someone to have hope in the midst of suffering because hope in the midst of suffering is a miracle and a surprise. All you can do is be in awe if it happens.

Again, it’s not a formula, but I will say, I have seen it. Suffering, that produces perseverance and stubbornness like no other. It’s almost scary to see, the drive in their eyes when you know they’ve known hunger. And character, whew the personalities that I’ve seen who’s been through some real crazy stuff, they are characters.

There’s a word I like in Korean, KKI. I’m not at all sure if this is at all the epidemiology of the word, but I think it defines the word well. It’s like, the Chinese word for energy, chi, which in Korean is gi, but KKI is like an extra cool factor energy, KKI. It’s kind of like the African-American culture of a thing called ‘swag,’ it’s just like style, like even in the smallest ways of how a person walks, how they carry themselves, how they talk. To me, that’s why I think of when I think of hope from suffering. Like where d’you get that? That kki, that style, that swag, that energy, I don’t recognize it, I can’t even name it, it’s just, you’re just in awe.

I love dance. Fun fact, I was in a hip hop dance team when I was in college. And in dance, especially in what you call street dance, these new moves that come out of literally off the streets like New York or the Bay area, that become so popular that they end up being picked up by pop stars years later. It happened with the “moon walk” with Michael Jackson and just about every other dance move you’ve seen on TV. The history of these dance moves many times come from, strife.

Take Voguing for example. You might’ve heard it from pop culture, Madonna had a song called Vogue. But it originates from Harlem dance clubs of Black and Latina gay and trans folks. The form is fun and powerful, drawing out so much confidence and strength when you try to do the moves. It’s a statement. It’s art. It’s defiance. It’s beautiful.

Another example is one called Turfing, from the Bay Area. Turf, which means Taking Up Room on the Floor. I can’t explain it. So here’s a clip. It’s four minutes but it’s such a beautiful embodiment and display of suffering producing perseverance and perseverance character and character hope that I’d like to yield my time of words and talking to just see it and feel it.
Take a look
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQRRnAhmB58

Here’s one of the comments from the video-

This the stuff that make a real one shed a tear, this video ain’t about dancing, it’s about mentally escaping a place you are physically in. East Oakland is as tragic as it gets, they filmed this after one of their Patna’s got murdered, you can feel their pain. Oakland made me tough but I’m glad I don’t live there no more. If you from the hood, it’s the goal is simple, get out and give back

Your suffering, I’m sorry that it happened to you, and that it can be hard. And if it’s been too hard that you can’t just look around and find hope, that’s not your fault. But I pray, that the gift of grace will be upon you, taking you through, and that the love of God may be poured into your hearts, that you may indeed, experience endurance and strength, resilience, that will build you up and make you into a beautiful image of God at full display like these guys, that no may what may befall, you will have friends you can smile and dance with, with power and freedom. May this be our life in the spirit. Amen.

Why I Love Jesus

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

For this week’s spiritual practice led by Ivy Anthony, Seeds, click HERE.


We’re entering the sixth and final week of Lent, the week that in the Christian tradition has often been called Holy Week. As you’ve heard, this Friday and this Sunday, you’re invited to both in person and online opportunities to gather, to reflect, to worship in response to both the death and the resurrection of Jesus that we remember at the end of this week. This is a great time to remember and to love Jesus. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

For the past five weeks, we’ve read along with the Bible’s minor prophets, asking – What is most important? 

We’ve heard the prophets say things like:

“Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,”  and we’ve wondered what it looks like to be people of good intentions and good impact in the world.

We’ve heard:

“I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and wondered what kind of religion God loves and what kinds God hates, and what it would be like to have more love and kindness at the center of our lives.

We’ve read the prophets get poetic about the world as it should be, imagining the beautiful beloved community reign of God on earth, where there is more than enough for everyone. And we’ve wondered what steps are ours to take to see that into being, and we’ve asked of God with the prophets:

Why not now? And how long?

We’ve remembered there are so many ways to hate God in this life, but there are so many ways to love God too. 

And in this final week, we’ll read short excerpts from four different prophets. Each day, we’ll read words that centuries after they were first spoken and written became important to the first followers of Jesus. These words helped them understand who Jesus was and is and what happened in the final days of Jesus’ life and in the days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. 

This week’s five passages are not “about” Jesus per se. They were all written by people centuries before Jesus, about other things, to other people, in other times. When we read the Bible, we’re reading other people’s mail. In the New Testament of the Bible, we’re reminded that those of us who follow Jesus but are not Jewish are like branches grafted into an older tree. We didn’t come first, we’re not part of the original people of God in this faith. Not everything is about us.  

But each of these passages have also been windows for followers of Jesus into some way God was moving in the life of Jesus Christ. And at least for me, these passages remind me of reasons I love God, reasons I love the God Jesus loved, and reasons I love Jesus too. 

So this week, I’m not going to speak about one passage in depth. I’m going to read a few different quotes from the passages in the final week of our Lenten guide. And I’ll share a few reasons why I love Jesus. On this Palm Sunday, the day Jesus took center stage in Jerusalem in the final week before he was rejected and crucified, I will share some of why I love Jesus. And as the city welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, I hope that we will all welcome the presence of God in Jesus to us and that Spirit of God might stir love in all our hearts today as well.

So, why I love Jesus.

Joel 2:25a, 28 

25 I will repay you for the years

    that the cutting locust,

    the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten

28  After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;

        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

        your old men will dream dreams,

        and your young men will see visions.

As a prophet, Joel knew that people have really crappy things happen during crappy years in crappy seasons of life. Locusts swarm, and they don’t just get in your eyes and your sheets and in your crops, but they eat everything. They come in so many forms – the cutting ones and the swarming ones, and the hopping ones and the devouring ones. But they all darken the sky and devour your food and leave you aching with hunger and afraid you won’t make it through the winter to come. 

I love Jesus because the locusts first came into my fields when I was just a kid but they weren’t the end of me. My locusts looked like anger and neglect and stealing stuff and kind of wishing I’d be caught and not knowing who to go to when things weren’t OK. And sometimes picking someone to go to but at least once that being the really, really, really wrong person. My locusts looked like ending up an invisible footnote in a horrible, sordid North Shore crime story that left me shamed and scared and all locked up inside. 

I love Jesus, though, because spirit came to this young man, because Jesus made me part of the everyone God pours into. I love Jesus because  he started saving me through so many people: 

  • Through Sunny Prior, my chorus teacher, who made me solo in front of dozens of my peers and smiled and told me: man, I could sing.
  • Through Ken Jones, my English teacher who, while his kids and hopes were dying, made room for me. Validated the written expression of my thoughts and life, and gave a speech at my school where he talked about hope and the marvelous incomprehensibility of God. 
  • Through a sweet high school girlfriend who was kinder to me than I knew how to be to myself and said corny things about faith like how life was full of glimpses of heaven.
  • Through a hokey old lady who told me Jesus would always love me and always be in my heart and through a pastor who made it seem like you could be smart and a Christian, even though I wasn’t really either of those things yet, and who baptized me.
  • Through a string of teachers and bosses who saw more in me than I saw in myself, who blessed a hopeful future into being with their affirmations.
  • Through my first therapist, who made me feel normal, and that what felt like my mess wasn’t really my fault at all
  • Through my friends who heard me tell my stories – heavy, raw – and accepted me and kept on being my friends, even when they didn’t know what to say.

Spirit was poured out to me through the love and kindness of people that taught me I mattered, I was loved. And I love Jesus for all of them, and for all the ways he saved me, brought me out of the locust field and has never stopped wrenching good out of the evils that found me there. 

This has been a year of swarming locusts. I’ve come back to this verse in prayer this year, shoving it in God’s face so to speak and asking God for redemption. But when I think of so many people and places that are ravaged by this crappy year we’ve had, I love Jesus because I have hope that this won’t be the end of the story. I love Jesus because Spirit of God has wrenched good out of evil in my life before, and I’m counting on God to help us wrench good out of evil after this locust-filled year too. 

Zephaniah 3:17 

17  The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.

        He will create calm with his love;

        he will rejoice over you with singing.

I love Jesus because like me, and like all of us, he must have loved it when people sang when he was little. Lullaby songs – old, old religious songs about God and kings and good times and bad times and joy and anger, and funny songs about fig trees and pearls and lost people and lost sheep and lost coins. I love Jesus because he came from a people and from a faith that loved to sing, and I think that even though we don’t have any stories about Jesus singing, he must have sung by himself at night, or while walking along the road with his friends.

And I love Jesus because I imagine that God is somehow still singing lullabies, that God in Christ within and around and among us by God’s spirit still rejoices over us, rejoices over you with singing. I still can’t shake this feeling that someone is singing over us like this. 

I found out I was a teenager that I loved to sing. Singing with other people made me feel alive, like my body and my voice were part of something strong and beautiful, a sound, a force, a presence made of nothing but waves in the air, but still, that can soften hearts and grow courage and bring you back to your best self and stir the masses and make one believe there must be a God. 

I love Jesus because whether I was singing gospel or Bach or show tunes or the weirdest avant garde experiment, I always knew that calmness and joy and strength and beauty were our common human heritage, our way that we were meant to be. And I love Jesus because when I was 17 and pretending to be a 1950’s New York City Polish kid heads over heels in forbidden love, well, I remember lying dead on the stage after hours of belting love songs, and listening to Melina who played Maria in West Side Story make peace over my supposed corpse. I felt like life could be noble and good, and big and beautiful things could still happen among us. I still feel that way when I sing. I love Jesus for how art can stir us like that. And I love Jesus for what singing did for me, and I love that God loves music and loves to sing. 

Malachi 4:6a 

6 Turn the hearts of the parents to the children

    and the hearts of the children to their parents.

I love Jesus because Jesus loves children, my children and your children or nieces or brothers or your neighbor’s kids and all the children of the world. 

We live in a world that says it loves children that sing: I believe that children are the future, but then hates children. We want children to behave and be quiet, and be seen and not heard and be still and work hard and fulfill our dreams for them and shape them in our image. But Jesus said: let the children come to me. He liked being interrupted by children. He saw children. He healed children. I don’t know if there’s ever been a prophet who loved children like Jesus and that makes me love Jesus too.

Jesus understands what it’s like to love children, and parents. And Jesus understands what it’s like to have family problems and to grieve and to long for things to be better or have been better.

Jesus said that sometimes to follow life and follow love and follow Jesus and be well, that’s going to disrupt the family. I love Jesus for knowing that families are sometimes hard places and broken places. I love Jesus because when I wish my family had been different or was different, Jesus knows about that too. But Jesus also knows that the Spirit’s longing is to turn the hearts of parents to their kids and to turn the hearts of kids to their parents. 

God knows how heart-breaking it is when parent’s hearts aren’t turned toward their kids or when kid’s hearts are turned against their parents. I love Jesus for understanding when that’s been true for me, and I love that God is holding out for us all to come around to one another, to see better, to heal better, to love better. 

Zechariah 12:b 

12:b They will look to me concerning the one whom they pierced;

        they will mourn over him like the mourning for an only child.

I love Jesus because he didn’t take the easy way, because he’s not a winning team kind of person. I love Jesus because on the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into the big city on a donkey, talking about real peace, there was a whole legion of Roman soldiers across town, marching into the city on warhorses, talking propaganda about the peace the money and weapons can buy you. I love Jesus because Jesus knew his life, his message of justice, reconciliation, dignity for the little person, utter disinterest in the bogus promises of capital and politics would get him killed, and he did it anyway. 

I love Jesus because he suffered enough, and lived looking into people’s eyes and touching hands with empathy, that they called him Man of Sorrows. And I love Jesus because he got close enough to the shamed and blamed that he had this other nickname: Friend of sinners. 

Who earns the nicknames Friend of Sinners and Man of Sorrows? I love Jesus for that. I love Jesus because I believe he cried with me in my freshman dorm room and sat and struggled with me while I lost weight and peace of mind. I love Jesus because I believe he walked out of my house with me when I had to leave and not look back. I love Jesus because I made a best friend named Grace who has been really kind and loyal and loving and faithful to me, and I love Jesus because he pushes me to be those things too.

And I love Jesus because when I’ve needed other friends and been lonely, other friends have come my way and Jesus has been my adult imaginary friend who’s real. I love Jesus for weeping with me when Nana and Pop Pop died and for being there at every funeral I’ve been to or led, even the ones I led through tears or shaky knees. I love Jesus because when I’m fed up or exasperated or angry about someone who’s so broken or self-sabotaging or so damn foolish, Jesus loves them more than me and sometimes turns my heart to be like his.

I love Jesus because I’ve found his Spirit in the woods and by the ocean and in prayers and meetings and in my classroom and in confessions and in the shadowed hallways of the ICE detention center and in hoarder’s houses and state house hallways and all the other places where I haven’t known just who to be or what to do. 

I love Jesus because in Jesus, I know that God takes every suffering, every sigh, every tear, every indignity of experience on earth and brings it into the heart of God, let’s it impact the eternal mind from which all life begins. And I love Jesus because even when I’m afraid of failing or afraid of losing or afraid of dying, I know God will be there with me and know the way through it, for me and for us all. 

Zechariah 13:1a 

13:1a On that day, a fountain will open….

And I love Jesus because of the spring sunshine, and the meal a churchgoer offered to cook me. I love Jesus because a little tree is growing out of the patch of dirt where we buried our Bengal cat Azuma last year. I love Jesus because my son made sure we buried that cat, and my wife made a little garden plot on that ground – all this lovingkindness when I was too shocked, too sad to do anything. 

I love Jesus because he’s alive, and because he makes me less afraid of dying. I love Jesus because he’s alive and is always birthing beautiful new things, always growing out of the soft and fertile places and the hard and stony places. 

I love Jesus because my children and nieces and nephews and godchildren are all alive and becoming the most wonderful of people. I love Jesus because I used to be afraid my life wouldn’t amount to anything, and I’m not afraid of that anymore. 

I love Jesus for the friend I was impossibly awful to who told me: I know what you did, Steve, and I forgive you, and showed me what Jesus looks like, always self-giving, co-suffering, always forgiving love. I love Jesus for showing us how very good God is. I love Jesus because God has become a fountain of life in me, made me bit by bit into a safe person, a gentler person, a kinder person. I love Jesus because Jesus shows me I’m so, so very loved, and that’s been filling up the holes in me that used to lie and sneak and harm and push me to the edge of despair. 

I love Jesus because when I close my eyes or take a walk and move my hands from my heart and say: Jesus, hold my burdens, or Jesus, hold my worries, something really happens. Peace comes. 

I love Jesus because no matter what the future holds, no matter what this next year brings, a river of life that is the person and presence of the living, life-giving God is flowing in me, is flowing in you, is welling up life and hope and faith and love like a reservoir, to pour into us and pour out of us again and again and again.

Thanks be to God.

Retreat Into Your City!

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

For this week’s spiritual exercise “Paying Attention” led by Steve, click HERE.

For this week’s worship service, click the YouTube link above.

[This week’s sermon has no script, but is captured in the video from our service. Thank you to Reservoir members speaking in the video: Herma Parham, Mardi Fuller, Grace Watson, Lyssa Paluay.]

Wrestling with God Like Jacob

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Click HERE for this week’s spiritual practice “Fighting with God.”

Click the YouTube link above to view this week’s worship service.

Genesis 32:22-31

32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

32:25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

32:26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

32:27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

32:28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

32:29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

 

—-

God of wonder, we come wandering into this space, seeking, asking, wrestling with a desire to see and know you. Shine your face upon us and give us yourself. That we may be touched with the divine touch that will wake us up we pray. In Jesus Name Amen. 

 

Genesis. This is where it begins. The stories of God interacting with God’s people, starting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the foundational patriarchs of a nation that comes to be known as Israel, which this story is the origin story of that name. 

 

Meaning of names is usually a big deal. What does your name mean? And what does that say about you? Right now, I’m trying to think of a boy name, because we’re expecting a boy. Yes, you haven’t seen the belly growth cause online video only capture my upper half! It’s so hard thinking of a name that will determine his destiny for the rest of his life! I mean, he could change his own name and all that but still, we want to birth him into the world with a meaningful intention. 

 

So this name change from Jacob to Israel is a meaningful moment. So what does this name mean? 

 

When you are young you are taught things that are simple. Stories that usually have a more concrete moral of the story, good and bad. I heard this story growing up in ways that were generally simple and positive. Although, it’s pretty peculiar and reveals the complex nature of our relationships with God. For the most part I heard something like, hold onto God, and God will bless you. Or you grow a little older and maybe the story gets a little more complex, you can wrestle with God and if you do, in the end God will bless you. Again, still a nice conclusion wrapped in a bow. 

 

But this character Jacob, is one complicated guy. I mean, he’s got two wives and two maids! But hey, that’s me judging him from our cultural context. At that time I think that was normal. A great example of why we shouldn’t just take things out from the Bible and apply it to our times literally, cause this is a biblical marriage! Anyways, the back story of Jacob has some sketchy parts. 

 

He’s the guy that had a twin, named Esau. The story goes, Esau came out first and Jacob came out “grabbing Esau’s heel”, and that’s been the case for the rest of their lives. Jacob was a bit of a different boy. Esau was burly, loved to hunt, a man’s man you could say, and Isaac loved him. Jacob, he loved to cook and was loved by Rebekah. One day when Esau came back from hunting famished, and Jacob had a nice stew going, he wouldn’t give his brother some until Esau gave him his birthright, which is probably that as the first son Esau would get Isaac’s inheritance, which is totally unfair and I get why Jacob was eyeing it. Well Jacob gets his way. Esau gets some soup. Later when Isaac is getting older, Jacob dresses up in Esau’s clothes and tricks his dad to give him a blessing, and by blessing I think they mean money. Jacob’s smart! But also, super sneaky! And later he fights with God to get his blessing again. I mean this guy is one of the Bible’s heroes and apparently a great example of faith. You hear these stories growing up, saying, be like Abraham, be like Isaac, be like Jacob. Um, am I supposed to cheat, trick, and fight to get “blessings” like Jacob? 

 

And the poor guy Esau in Gen 27:36 says, “He has deceived me two times, he took my birthright and my blessings!” And asks his father Isaac, “haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”

And Isaac replies, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?” Wow. So unfair. Life man! 

 

So what are we to learn from this story? Be like Jacob and you’ll be blessed? I’ve been saying this thing, the last few times I’ve been preaching these days. As I reflect on the Bible stories I’ve heard again and again, in ways that are too simple to fit into the complex life experiences that I’ve seen, I’m beginning to realize again, maybe, maybe Jacob is not an ideal example of faith to aspire to but a picture of faith. A picture of someone who is the second child, the unfavored by his father child, who had to always cause a bit of trouble to get some attention, who didn’t have things come easy for him but he had to be a little sneaky at times. A boy who didn’t like to hunt but cook. I’ve heard a gay pastor preach on this text and how he related to Jacob’s situation and it was so good. Maybe Jacob is someone who struggled through, always misunderstood, the guy that cheated his brother and that guilt ate at him always. 

 

I grew up hearing this story with the meaning of the word Israel as, one who prevails. One who triumphs. And that meaning is in there but there’s more. And by reducing it to those words we’ve created a theological conclusion that aligns with the strong worldly perspective and value of winning. Israel, yeah so strong, one who wins, that’s what it means. Well actually it says, “for you have striven with God and with humans” and the root words in Israel are more similar to the word for “struggle”. The definition might be close to “one who struggles with God” or “one who fights with God”. 

 

A picture of faith then might be, not one who prevails or even is blessed, but one who wrestles with God. And isn’t that a more realistic, relatable picture that doesn’t put faith figures like Jacob on a pedestal but right here with us in the deep of it all, in the places where we have questions, places where we don’t get God, times and seasons in our lives when we’re like, “what are you doing God?” That I believe is a more sophisticated authentic, not sterile or afraid of intimacy faith. A real faith. 

 

And this story also shows that sometimes God can feel like an intruder at night. God is often named as a protector and a helper, a provider, but in this text we see a God who is challenging. And even leaving Jacob with a limp, and you know maybe Jacob the trickster needed that limp to be humbled, because the next day he ends up facing Esau, remember his brother he cheated? So does God sometimes make us limp? What are we to do with texts like this? 

 

I don’t think we should draw blanket conclusions to these stories because it’s just a story of one man, in a particular situation that was captured in some form. And the reality, it may speak to different people at different times, sometimes relatable, and sometimes not and that’s okay! We don’t all have to relate with all the characters, especially the big names of the Bible, because it might strike us at different times as we need it. I refuse to take this one story and say, see God is dangerous. Don’t mess with God. or see God strikes us to humble us. Sometimes that can be misused to people’s situations that can be really toxic or harmful. Some of that may be true for you at one time and may not be true for you another time. What is this text saying to you? You might have to meditate with it a bit more and think about your lives. I’d only like to open it up to say, look here’s one example of a complicated man attempting to do faith. 

 

The lesson I’m learning today from this story is, see, God is relational and an interactive being. You see, I’m not always SURE of my faith. I am constantly deconstructing church baggage, constantly grieving so much of what is not yet, too often praying to God, God I don’t understand, rather than Jesus my faith is so strong. Sometimes to be honest, I don’t relate with a lot of praise songs in worship cause they sound so sure. And I wrestle and struggle with God and my faith a lot, and it sometimes makes me feel insecure like I’m not a good Christian, or is this religion even right for me? Why am I always protesting so much? I don’t know, maybe cause I’m a protestant, that’s where the word comes from right? Asking, seeking, not being satisfied with the status quo. And you know, this story is an encouragement to me because honestly, it’s true. I don’t fight with someone I don’t really care about. It’s not worth it. If someone really hurt me, but they’re like I don’t know, someone who I’m not that close with, I wouldn’t even bring it up, cause I don’t care. But someone who matters a lot to me, it’s important they know how I feel, and how they’ve impacted me, because I want to continue that relationship. You see, God of Jacob isn’t a God who is high on a throne watching down from a distance, but a God who you can get physical with. Someone you can throw down with. Someone you can get in your face with. And if doing that with God is not being a good Christian, then I don’t want to be a good Christian. I want a real relationship with a real divine being. 

 

What have you been struggling with the Lord lately? Has that “shaken your faith” or made you feel uncertain about your faith? It’s okay. You’re just as complicated as Jacob I’m sure. And we’re all a mix of moral failures, sketchy decisions, questionable motives, and pure desires, aware of our guilt, and seeking reconciliation like Jacob did with Esau. In all of our limpings and in our blessings, may we continue to wrestle with God who touches us, finds us at night, and shows Godself to us face to face. May that intimate God of love be near you and with you today. Let me pray for us. 

 

God who wrestles with us in the night, helps us to find you in the places where we are limping, helps us to find you in the places we prevail. And through it all would you humble us that we may fight or rest in your presence we pray in Jesus Name Amen. 

Day of Pentecost

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Communion 5_31_20

[Prayer] God, I ask for your presence today. We are seeking you in these times. Would a gust of wind take over now, like you did at Pentecost. Help me to speak, not from my own knowledge, but yours oh Jesus, from your love, your truth, your wisdom. Help us to hear you, through and despite my voice, would you speak to each of our own hearts. Pray this in Jesus name Amen. 

 

Today, in the Christian liturgical calendar, is called Day of Pentecost. A tradition, a time where we remember this story from Acts. Let me read it for us. 

 

Acts 2:1-21

2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,

2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.

2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

 

What a weird story! A tongue rested on each of them, and they spoke in different languages. And some people were like, are they drunk?

This is chapter two of Acts. A book that captures the history of the times following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Chapter one starts with Jesus being taken up to heaven, and then what happens to the community of Jesus followers, the aftermath of resurrection, that becomes the building of the first church of Christians. Chapter 2, catapults this powerful moment when the Holy Spirit comes. These were confusing times. Original followers of Jesus not knowing what to do exactly, gathered together in fear, constantly in prayer. There were even some changes in leadership by casting lots in chapter 1. These were uncertain times. 

 

Much like our times. This is why I believe that the Holy Scriptures are alive because it hits us right where we are sometimes, even through stories from ages ago. I can see parallels and relate to some parts. Like they’re locked in a room together. And the State power had just recently unjustly executed one of their beloved teachers and friends. People were left with grief and loss, and confusion. 

While others saw the resurrected Lord, spoke with him, touched his hands, and ate with him, others were in hiding and denying they knew Jesus at all. The rules of being a follower of Jesus had changed. His disciples went from being fishers, to traveling and doing ministry with a miracle worker, and then he was gone. Now what. 

 

I’ve been saying to some folks in these times, I feel like I’m completely learning how to do ministry in this new age in new ways. I did not learn zoom in seminary! And we’re no longer meeting in a sanctuary for Sunday worship, now what! 

 

Amidst the uncertainty, the chaos. This happens.While they were gathered together to pray, suddenly, a violent wind suddenly came in, making a huge noise. With that collapsing wind, a crowd came together in bewilderment. And each one heard them speaking in their own language. The Holy Spirit comes as a violent wind, and what happens? They all start speaking in different languages and hearing their own language. 

That’s what the Holy Spirit did? I find that kind of, I don’t know, in one sense, that’s it? They just spoke different languages? They didn’t all fly, or all get healed, or all levitate, or all something more supernatural maybe? Just as perplexed as they were, I”m asking, “what does this mean?” And as I say I don’t get it, what the significance of why God decided this was the miracle sign of the Holy Spirit, I ask myself, what does this mean to me personally as I meditate on the words now. And it alivened in me a few thoughts.

In my own personal context as it meets me where I am today, is that God is speaking to me in my own language exactly where I am right now, what I need to hear. Which is maybe the power of the Holy Spirit at work even this week as I prepared for this message. I’ll explain it to you in that context and see if it makes any sense or meaning to you. I don’t know, but this is the only way I know how to understand this text. Through my own experience and language. Maybe you’ll hear it in your own language, wherever you are. 

 

I am an Asian American. I know you can see that, and also that you see beyond that in most situations, that I’m just Lydia, or I’m a pastor, or a woman. But what I look like has had a big impact on my life on how I understand myself, how I understand how the world sees me. Even as I get older, my culture, my language, my heritage, my tradition rings me back to reality of who I am again and again. How I long to teach my daughter Korean. How making korean food makes me feel a certain way. How hearing Director Bong speak Korean on Oscar awards stage made me feel.  I’ve been a part of Reservoir’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion team and how those words and race plays a role in my life, my work, my church has been at the top of my mind. Race. Diversity….

Sometimes I wish I was just normal, not looking at the world through this lens, just me, just worry about work, and food, and I dunno hobbies instead of race, ethnicity, color. Sometimes I get tired of translating everything from “normal” to me. 

 

So when I hear that the Holy Spirit flared up into your own language,I think, “God I so want that.” I need God’s work to be spoken in my language without me needing to translate it. And this is what the Holy Spirit does. It gathers disparate afraid people to gather in one zoom room, united by Jesus, and yet speaking in different languages, diverse from all different countries, backgrounds, experiences, stories, worldviews, political views, and the Spirit among us somehow, even though we are so different helps us speak up in our own languages AND hear in our own language. This is what the Spirit does. And may I say, sometimes it’s not very orderly like our Bible story today. It can be confusing, messy, some are astonished and oh, yes, there will be “others” who sneer and say, “They are filled with new wine.” Some won’t get it. Some who say how does that even work? Some who will judge or ridicule. Inside the room and outside the room. That voice will be there. Still, this is what the Spirit does. Spirit does what the Spirit needs to do to speak to God’s people, so that the God’s people hear, recognize, and are empowered by the truth of Jesus. 

 

My favorite part of this story is what the Spirit did to Peter. In the midst of judgement and chaos,  Peter gets up, raises his voice, and addresses the crowd to set things straight. It’s like this dramatic moment, like that old movie, Dead Poets Society, oh it’s such an old movie now but when the students start standing on their desks one by one in solidarity with their teacher played by Robin Williams. The spirit, an energy, moved around the room and gave them courage to stand. 

 

And Peter, remember him? Dr. Debra Mumford professor at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary with interest and focus on African American prophetic preaching, pointed this out to me. She says, “Is this the, “I don’t know the man, I have never heard of Jesus,” Peter?” Yeah, in Luke 22, when people recognized him as one of the disciples, “you’re one of them.” He denied, “I am not!” and another said, yes you knew him, Peter said, “I don’t know the man. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” To that Peter, Dr Mumford says, “The power of the Holy Spirit emboldened Peter to speak to the masses.” One who denied Jesus only maybe weeks or months ago, now stands and defends and speaks. This is what the Holy Spirit does. It turns people around. It raises people to speak up. It changes people’s minds. It gives them courage, it gives them words, words of their own to reach those who are different from them. 

 

So let me riff off of this power of the Holy Spirit, cause it sounds so good, I want some, I wanna try it out. 

Let me stand up and take courage to say something that I really want to say, but I’ll say it in my own language, in my own context, and I pray, that the Holy Spirit will come upon us and will receive my words in your own language as you need. God, preaching is hard, and again I apologize if this sounds political to you, but race, look at my skin, is not political, it’s personal, this is my testimony and my witness. Humbly I speak. 

 

When I read Peter standing up quoting Joel, I heard this. (You’ll see Joel text on your screen but I’ll share my thoughts throughout it.)

 

In the last days, boy it feels like last days these days. Daughters will prophesy, my god that’s good news, cause I’m a daughter, thank you Jesus for giving the power. They’re seeing visions. They’ve got dreams, that one day… Even on servants, and this word originally is slave but many translations use “servants” to make it less um, yeah, that’s why it says, “even” them, the Spirit will be poured out. And when I hear the word slaves, I can’t help but think of American history and black Americans, and yes, thank you Jesus, pour out your spirit on these descendants of slaves and for they are prophesying. Show us the wonders in heaven above cause I see the signs on earth, blood on the streets, fire in Minneapolis riots, and tear gas billows of smoke flaring up, Lord Jesus. The sun will be turned to darkness, man this winter was long, and the moon to blood… too much blood…. You say all this happens before, before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord, oh God please, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, Yes Lord, Lord, I call out to you. 

 

Like Peter, I used to deny, as an Asian American buying into the “norm”, benefitting from white normative culture.  “Oh that man, I’ve never heard of him.” I’m sorry to bring this up, the clip of George Floyd’s death, that asian cop standing there, quoting my friend Ophelia Hu Kinney now, “as the accomplice to the murder”. It reminds me of the ways how complicite we can be. Again, I don’t know about you, who you are or how you identify yourself, but I’m speaking from my perspective. On Twitter @braynyang says, “Asians need to reckon with the fact that we are all too often subservient and party to white supremacy because we are seen as model minorities…Don’t play into it.” it’s a reminder to us all, to speak up against anti-blackness. We can not just stand idly by why this happens again and again. 

And when folks say, oh those riots, they must be crazy, they’ve lost it, or maybe they are drunk. or whatever, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King says, “a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

What is it that America has failed to hear? Wow. What is it that America has failed to hear? 

 

Amidst the chaos, the blood, and fire, and smoke, I am caught by the thunderous and violent wind of the Holy Spirit that rushes in and ignites in each of us the fire of justice in and through our own stories, our own language, may that tongue rest on each of us, and hear in our own language about God’s deeds of power. Because I can’t imagine that this is what God wants for our world. Our tongues, may they be loosed with joy, hope, and love. Amen. 

 

The Good Death: Loss, Legacy, and Levity

Research tells us that every last resident of 19th century Greater Boston is dead today. It’s true. Odds are that almost everyone in the room right now will be gone by the next century. I did a few google searches the other week for the oldest living Americans – they were born in 1904, 1905, 1906. But every time I’d double check if of these remarkable people was still alive, it’d turn out they too had passed on recently as well.

You don’t get to be the oldest living person for very long, it turns out. 

We are all going to die. And we face these signs of that our whole lives – lost pets, lost loved ones, aging bodies. 

Even in our teens and twenties, in the prime of our health, we notice there are years and times and opportunities we are never getting back. Last week, my teenage daughter’s cross country team had their final home meet of the year, senior day – this year my daughter’s last home meet of her high school career. And the seniors and us – their parents – get emotional. Partly because that day is never coming back. We age, and then we die. Gloomy, but true.

We don’t like to talk or think about aging and death very much, though, do we? In a time and place where we’re as good at extending our lifespans as we ever have been, we avoid and fear death as much as ever. 

Which is too bad, because how we age and how we die is a big part of the life well lived, or not. In fact, there’s an old tradition of the experience of a Good Death, a way of approaching death that is one of the crowns of a good life. 

And today, I want to talk about the good death – how we can prepare for it, and how that readiness can be part of today’s good life.

Today is our final talk in our early fall series, “On the Brink of Everything.” Next Sunday, we’ll start five weeks of an annual engagement with some of our church’s core teachings to encourage you on your faith journey, wherever that finds you today. And after that, we’ll be into Advent, our Christmas season.

But I wanted to make sure we got to end our “On the Brink of Everything” series with the biggest change and threat we’re all on the brink of, that being aging and death. 

As it turns out, I’ve got this old school preacherly way into this, an alliterative three point thing going on about loss, and legacy, and levity. And some stories for each of those.

We’ll start by looking at a famous brush with death in the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. It’s a scene of one of the better kings of Israel’s southern land of Judah, and it’s so interesting it’s captured almost verbatim in two different books of the Bible. 

Here’s part of the story from one of them, in the second of the books called Kings. 

II Kings 20:1-6 (CEB)

Around that same time, Hezekiah became deathly ill. The prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son, came to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your affairs in order because you are about to die. You won’t survive this.”

2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, 3 “Please, Lord, remember how I have walked before you in truth and sincerity. I have done what is right in your eyes.” Then Hezekiah cried and cried.

4 Isaiah hadn’t even left the middle courtyard of the palace when the Lord’s word came to him: 5 Turn around. Say to Hezekiah, my people’s leader: This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and have seen your tears. So now I’m going to heal you. Three days from now you will be able to go up to the Lord’s temple. 6 I will add fifteen years to your life. I will rescue you and this city from the power of the Assyian king. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.

So this is a story about so many things. It’s a story about prayer. It’s a story about healing. It’s a story about God’s nature as the great source and being of lovingkindness. God in this story is listening to prayer, is healing, is tender toward this person and people God loves.  

And that is all interesting and important, but this isn’t a talk about any of those things exactly. It’s a talk about the good death, one I’ll suggest that in many ways Hezekiah is not going to have. 

So I want to start by noticing that Hezekiah is utterly unprepared for his own death. He’s sick, it looks like he’s going to die – he’s told as much. Put your affairs in order. And he cannot find the strength to do that. Instead, he cries and cries and cries.  

Now I don’t want to be judgy about this. I might well be the same, if I got seriously ill tomorrow, and was looking at a potentially early death. Who knows how any of us would respond to that news? 

We’re probably less prepared, most of us, than our ancestors were. Again, we’re better than we’ve ever been at postponing death, but we’re also maybe better than we’ve ever been at avoiding it; we’re unfamiliar with this one inevitable possibility. 

100 years ago, in most of the world, most people lived in multi-generational households and most people died in their homes, so most people of all ages, knew what it was to be with someone as they died. 

Most of us, though, do not live in multi-generational community, and most of us die in hospitals, and older and older, and having been unwell longer and longer. So our experience of death is changing. The local surgeon Atul Gwande and others have written about the ways our whole medical complex is bound up with our practice of extending the longevity of our years, but not preparing for death, and so not coming to grips with it, and so not often ready to die well.  

I’ve had the honor to know and pastor people in this congregation who have died good deaths. And in each case, at some point, they’ve stopped fighting it, stopped focusing on a hope for healing and turn-around, and found ways to come to terms and make some sense of their loss. 

One of these people was Julie O’Connor, who’d been a board member here when I started out as your pastor. Julie’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, which gives you odds of a couple more years of life. With lots of great medical care and prayer, she’d beat those odds – by a lot – but at a certain point, she was out of treatment options and coming to terms with her death. 

We held a final prayer meeting for her right here, which I’ll never forget. Because she stood up in that time, and she thanked her church family for our love and support and prayers. And she said, I especially thank this church for helping me accept what’s happening. She said she’d been raised when she was young to believe that all things that happen on earth are God’s will, under God’s tight control. And she said that in her time in this church, she’d come to understand that a loving and powerful God doesn’t control history and circumstances that way. Things like her cancer are not the will of God. She didn’t need to figure out if she was being punished or tested in some way. Awful things happen, for a million reasons, in this broken and incomplete world of ours. God is a personal and present force of healing and love and peace and help in all things, but in the short run, God doesn’t always get God’s way. And that had helped her accept her coming death, that she was suffering something painful and tragic, but that she was still known and beloved and cared for by a good God who had not done that to her. And that gave her peace. She could face her loss. 

So moving to me, her courage in the face of death. By not having to blame it on God or understand a cosmic reason for why it was happening, she could have peace in the face of death, and she could live well at the end. I honor Julie O’Connor’s good death – I hope to remember her courage when my time comes.

We’ve all known people who couldn’t do this. People whose terror grows as they age, people who long before their deaths are unable to age gracefully – always trying to look younger and act younger than their years. People who nurse regrets and brood over things lost and things they fear losing. Again, understandable dispositions, but ones that keep them from knowing peace, and keep them from inhabiting the wisdom and calling of their life in this season. 

Part of preparing for our eventual good death is by learning to face death today. To accept, even embrace, our aging and our losses. To accept, even if not welcome, our eventual deaths. To accept that life will continue, this world will continue without us living in it. 

There’s an ancient Christian tradition that’s meant to help with this. It’s called the momento mori, Latin for moment of death. It’s the spiritual practice of meditating on the eventual moment of our death. Sometimes doing that accompanied by artwork that displays symbols of death, or viewing the cycle of death in the natural world, as we will this fall, and contemplating our eventual death.

The purpose of this isn’t to be morbid or gloomy. In fact, as I’ll remind us as I close, it’s not best to engage this practice if you’re depressed, certainly not if you’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts before, because the point of it is not welcoming death as an escape. It’s meant to simply grow us in wisdom, in acceptance of our eventual end, in a way that helps us live with vitality, treasuring life today, but not pretending it will last forever. 

There are Jewish traditions that do this as well. I’ve always been really struck by Jewish traditions around death and dying, including their beautiful, multi-layered, communal year-long honoring of grief, after a loved one dies. This includes visits in the home after the funeral. It includes prayers and liturgies, remembrances of loss and grief in the community’s worship, throughout the year after one’s death. 

This obviously is for the comfort of those living, to enfold us in loving remembrance. But these practices also serve to remind a community that we all will die, and to prepare us to accept our losses with peace and courage. 

Friends, life is full of losses. You don’t need me to tell you that. You have your own pains, the ones that have happened, and the ones you fear as well. I pray that you can accept these losses with gentleness, saying as you need – This is a moment of suffering. But this too will pass, and there will be more on the other side. I pray you can hold your losses with that hope as well. 

Loss is the hardest side of aging and death but there are opportunities too – opportunities for legacy and levity. 

Let’s return to our story with King Hezekiah.

Hezekiah is feeling good because of release from double jeopardy. He’s healthy again rather than dead. And a devastating invasion from the empire to his north, Assyra, has been repelled. So when ambassadors from a kingdom further off to the East visit, he gladly shows them around his palace. 

II Kings 20: 14-21 (CEB)

14 Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? Where have they come from?”

Hezekiah said, “They came from a distant country: Babylon.”

15 “What have they seen in your palace?” Isaiah asked.

“They have seen everything in my palace,” Hezekiah answered. “There’s not a single thing in my storehouses that I haven’t shown them.”

16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Listen to the Lord’s word: 17 The days are nearly here when everything in your palace and all that your ancestors collected up to now will be carried off to Babylon. Not a single thing will be left, says the Lord.18 Some of your children, your very own offspring, will be taken away. They will become eunuchs in the palace of Babylon’s king.”

19 Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The Lord’s word that you’ve spoken is good,” because he thought: There will be peace and security in my lifetime.

20 The rest of Hezekiah’s deeds and all his powerful acts—how he made the pool and the channel and brought water inside the city—aren’t they written in the official records of Judah’s kings? 21 Hezekiah lay down with his ancestors. His son Manasseh succeeded him as king.

Hezekiah, it seems, is so preoccupied with his own fears of Assyria and of death that he commits this major strategic blunder as a leader. In his short-sighted relief, he welcomes envoys of far-off Babylon to tour his household and all his treasures. 

And Isaiah tells him this was a big, big mistake. Things are set in motion that will lead to the destruction of his nation, and the suffering of his descendants. This becomes his legacy – he did these other great things – waterworks and more – but here he’s known at the end for opening the gates to his people’s eventual destroyer. 

Here’s the kicker – Hezekiah hears the news and is relieved. Like: sucks to be my eunuch grandkids. At least I’m OK. It’s shocking – even more so in the ancient world – how utterly thoughtless he is about his own legacy. 

Politics hasn’t changed that much, I guess. These days our political leaders, some of our business leaders too, seem to also be weighing our current self-interest against the flourishing of future generations. And not making the most favorable choices for their legacy. 

All of us, though, no matter how big or how small our influence, have our legacy to consider. I love that my friends lead a community group for couples over fifty that is called just this – the legacy group. But all of us, regardless of our age, can ask – what is the legacy I’ll be leaving the next generation or two when I’m gone? 

This according to a recent Hidden Brain contest is one of the three main ways humans over the ages have dealt with the terror of aging and death. They’ve tried to live forever – a fools’ errand, but an attractive one, still now. Or they’ve had hopes in resurrection or some form of afterlife. Or they’ve put great care into their legacy, the memory and impact of their lives after they’re gone. 

My maternal grandfather did this. Pop Pop, as we called him, functioned like the patriarch of our family. We all respected his work ethic, his generosity, and his common sense folk wisdom. He organized his finances, in particular, with great care and lived really simply. That, some help and privilege, and some good luck meant that he was able to make a dramatic financial impact for my parents and for me and my two brothers and our families after he passed away. More importantly, we remember and carry in our hearts his love and attention – I carry his name in my name, as do a couple of my nephews. His legacy is strong and beautiful in our family.

Some people go bigger and bolder and more generous on their legacy, extending love and impact well beyond their families. I spent most of last week at a retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, where we focused on leadership for justice and renewal. Our leader was the social psychologist and theologian Christena Cleveland. And she told this story of being propelled more deeply into her work for racial justice. She was working out, listening to a recording with the great Black theologian James Cone, who just passed away last year.

Cone’s work is stunning – his writing is some of the most important writing and thinking about God that anyone in this country has produced. Our staff team discussed one of his books, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, early this year. It’s an amazing book. Anyway, Christena is listening to the recording and hears James Cone say: Everything that I do is for the liberation of Black people. 

And hearing this, Christena stopped, mid-stride on the eliptical trainer, and asked herself: How much am I doing for the liberation of my people? She was busy, she was getting famous, well paid, but this question shifted something in her. It was a watershed moment, that focused and deepened her work and her life choices, that clarified the legacy she wanted to leave in the world.

Legacy is not just a question for older people. Most of us find ourselves thinking more about the legacy we want to leave after 50, if we ever think about it, but considering our legacy throughout our lives is part of how aging can be part of the good life, whether we’re 80 or 20, or anywhere in between. For Christena Cleveland, this moment came to her in her early 30s.

What contribution do you want to make to your family, to your friends, to your culture, to this earth, that will remain after you’re gone? How would you like to be remembered – for your freedom and joy and courage, generosity, and love? Or like Hezekiah, for looking out for yourself, and short-changing the future? 

This is beyond the passage, but I was thinking about it the other day and imagining what might have been for Hezekiah. What if he had heard he had fifteen years left to live, and thought: hey, bonus years! How can I live free? How I live with gratitude? How can I bless the future? How can I approach my own death more light, than heavy? 

I’ve seen that people who prepare for the good death, and people that just age well do so not just making peace with their losses, not just building a beautiful legacy, but learning to live – even in some of their heaviest years – with more levity. 

My favorite Stephen King book is the little novel he published last year called Elevation. He imagines a man who in mid-life begins to weigh less each day while otherwise in excellent health. What happens when gravity ceases to do its work, not on the whole earth, but on a single soul? As it becomes clear that this is isn’t sustainable, that in time he will eventually lift off the earth and soar into the heavens, this man finds he’s able to shake off some of the other heaviness of life.

He starts to live with less regret, with more openness to new people and new ideas. He dares to live with more courage and more joy. 

It’s a weird premise – Stephen King after all – but a beautiful metaphor for the nature of a good life and a good death. To live with more humor, more freedom, more joy, even as our body fails, even as our future shrinks, even as death approaches. 

The first two times I saw someone die, at their bedsides for their final breaths, there was some terror for them – it was not an experience of levity, in that sense not a fully good death. So I’ve looked for others who have gotten lighter as they’ve aged, lighter even as they watched death approach. 

Some of these people have a fierce hope in the loving God they’ll meet after death, and in the loving arms that will enfold them there. So they’re fearless, they feel relief.

Others overflow with gratitude – the crown, I think, of a life of practicing gratitude each day. In one case, I saw a man who couldn’t stop talking about all the ways he loves Jesus. He loved Jesus because his momma taught him to. He loved Jesus because of the people that visited him while he lay on his hospice bed. He loved Jesus because of the kindness of his friends. He loved Jesus for the sky and the flowers, and the taste of communion, and the vitality of his stubborn child. He loved Jesus because of all the life he’s known, and he loved Jesus now that he was dying. So full, his life. And so light with love and gratitude. 

I want to go through my 50s and 60s and 70s and beyond like this – laying down burdens, laughing at the years to come rather than dreading them, treasuring joys and nursing good stories and good times. Free of regret, full of gratitude, full of love. 

When I find myself thinking this way, I think: life’s short. Why not start now? 

If I live in a resurrection faith, why not live more now?

If worship a God who became one of us and beat death, what do I have to fear? 

If risen Jesus took time to enjoy a meal of grilled fish with his friends, maybe I can take time for what brings me joy and renewal.

If Jesus’ friend who lived with the most regret saw Jesus look at him and say – let’s move on, let’s love. We’ve got work to do. Maybe I can let things go; live lighter; move on, love, work, live freely. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Prepare for part of a good death – write a will and a living will, and choose a healthcare proxy.

Some of our congregation are leading a practical seminar you’re invited to, on Sunday, November 3.

You can register at their eventbrite site for Death and Paperwork 101.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

  1. Now and then, consider your own death, and pray as you are led.
  2. If that’s not healthy for you, cherish each day’s life, and invest in relationships with those both older and younger than you.