A Question That Keeps Our Heads Up, Hands Out, & Hearts Open In The New Year | “What Do You Think?” - Reservoir Church
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A Question That Keeps Our Heads Up, Hands Out, & Hearts Open In The New Year | “What Do You Think?”

Ivy Anthony

Dec 31, 2023

Good morning! And Happy New Year’s Eve!  

Here we are – just hours away from 2024! A collective “Congratulations!” are in order – it’s no small feat to have made the journey of the last 364 days – and whether you arrive on the cusp of this new year feeling bedraggled or full of pep – or somewhere in between – here we are.

For me, there’s something sweet and comforting about being here on the threshold of a new year with all of you this morning.  To show up alongside one another  – with all of whatever our years have held – and still have an inclination to discover the love of God, the gift of community and the joy of living *TOGETHER.* Still trusting that somehow the Spirit of God is here too – and that somehow this matters as we teeter into a NEW YEAR.  I’m so grateful for that.

Five Sundays ago we began our Advent season with an interactive service where we populated the envelopes along the Sanctuary walls. “Cussing, Silence & Prayer” were three big categories that we invited you all to consider as you scanned the state of your hearts – and let’s just say, after spending time reading through these envelopes – “Cussing” takes a sizable lead.

My guess is that over the last five weeks this hasn’t changed much. There are things in our personal lives and in our public & global spheres that grieve us – make us angry, frustrated, and mournful… it’s why resolutions and intention setting to mark a new way forward can be so meaningful.  

I think New Year’s resolutions can be like prayers. They touch a deep longing in us – sometimes for freshness, sometimes to shake off and say “goodbye” to all that has been heartbreaking and painful  –  resolutions package our hopes into something that feels a little more do-able  – a ‘next’ good step or practice. And some of us love to set resolutions, goals, new rhythms … and some of us, as a friend reminded me, are still processing the year 2016, and 2018, and 2020, and 2021, etc.. 

I’m a mix of all of all of that…. and in the last few days as I’ve thought about this new year ahead.. I did as I often do, when things feel complex and non-linear – I turn to the poets.  I’ve been reading one of my favorite contemporary poets – Andrea Gibson. They are a Maine native – so I already have a soft spot for them, as a Mainer myself.  As a poet they spend much of their time reading. Their head down in books, essays, articles – words of literary experts & mentors of theirs – both for inspiration and creativity – but also for learning and knowledge…

Recently though they learned that their Stage IV cancer was back, and in the wake of this news – I heard them say,

“you know, I just don’t want to spend my time looking down. I just want to spend my time looking out at the world – even if it’s not guaranteed, even if I might lose it – because there’s so much to learn and love.” 

This really resonated with me – we don’t know what 2024 will bring…and the tendency to make some of it predictable whatever means that takes – often leads me to keeping my head down, and my heart busy. But this poet and the invitation of Jesus is to have more days than not where our heads are up, our hands out, and our hearts open – and to not be so afraid of getting it wrong, or fumbling, or being messy – or whatever it is – that we forget to live! 

Heads up, hands out, and hearts open – this could be a helpful posture to greet whatever 2024 might bring. And I want to offer us a question that I think will help us sustain this posture – one that Jesus asks Peter in scripture that we’ll look at today – it’s a simple one,

“What do you think?”  

I’ll share a couple of stories that get us going in that direction – and then we’ll see where scripture and this question, “What do you think?” takes us.  Let me pray for us.

Thank you Jesus that you are the one who is always here. Always with us. And here we are, God – here on the cusp of a new year – with hearts that brim  with a pleading hope – oh god – for more of you if anything in the days ahead. More of you in our silent moments, more of you in our anger, more of you in our aches, and more of you in our celebrating, in the unknown, in our awe – more of you, Oh God – in all the manner of our days… Could you make your presence known God and convincingly true? So that we can lay our heads on our pillows each night and wonder,  ‘what manner of love is this?’ “what manner of love?” And say as we do this morning…“Thank you God, Thank you.”

A few weeks ago – I came home from work on a Sunday. It had been a full and busy day and it was rainy, and cold, and yucky outside… And my whole drive home I just couldn’t wait to get into my sweats and sit on the couch. Over the years it’s been a bit of a known agreement in our house – that for at least one hour – on Sundays I come home and I do not move. I don’t drive anyone around, I don’t do errands, or get anyone anything. And the way you love me the most – is by letting that happen!

But you know – nothing’s perfect. And this particular Sunday my son had plans to do something with a friend of his, who would be driving him. I hadn’t met this friend, and I’m not super comfortable in general with “other kids driving my kid” around. And I was taking in all this information, just as I walked through the door – and was quickly realizing this would require my energy and movement. I wanted to introduce myself,  and say something like, “don’t speed” – And all of it was making me a bit grumpy. 

A few minutes later I was sliding on someone’s slippers that were near the door, and shuffling/jogging out to the rainy sidewalk to meet this friend.  Hands in my pockets. Head down.  My son leading the way to the parked car on the street. I looked up for a split second and realized there was a big puddle right in front of where the car was, and as I was trying to negotiate in the moment… “whether I should go directly to the driver’s side – or introduce myself across the big puddle?”… but it didn’t matter because I tripped!

Yep – I tripped on a lip in the sidewalk and fell alllll the way down – face down, splashed right in the edge of the puddle… soaking wet – fell out of those slippers. Totally embarrassed, I tried to ‘hop’ up as quickly as possible, look not in pain – find my slippers…  and make my way nonchalantly to the window of the car… both my son and his friend were as you might imagine in shock…  

Resolution for the New Year – don’t run with your hands in your pockets… It’s not even a resolution – it’s just a good, normal, baseline tip! 

Jesus said,

I have come for you to have (and live), life – and have it abundantly.” 

I was grumpy, I was tired, I was cold… my body posture – head down, hands in pockets -was a signal of how little I wanted to engage in this moment. What drudgery it was to pivot, and to show up anyway. . . In love.

And really what does a moment like that matter anyway? I was ok, nothing big was at stake – it was a small moment. Inconsequential. My son knows I love him  – I don’t think his friend cares if I love him or not. . . I could have shown up or not shown up.  What do you think?

Should we resolve to KEEP THINKING about WHY LOVE MATTERS – in circumstances, with people, in moments that are not mountain-top experiences? 

I think it would help us if we could.

Love can become a word that loses its depth – it can fall into disrepair in our human landscape.  We need to be deeply convinced at a feet-to-the-ground, face-to-face-neighbor level that love can be readily found in all of our spaces and somehow it does matter – puddles and all.

THE CONTENT of our lives – OUR LIVED LIVES – is how and where we learn about God.  I love reading someone’s pithy/hot-take on scripture – or a good story – or someone’s life work on theology, or an essay or a podcast of interesting, inspiring voices. They mentor me, they provoke me in good ways- but to look up and see the widest pages of life all around us, is also where it’s at.  When I’m too in the weeds with research, or doubting myself and trying to find some “expert voice” to back me.

The detriment is that I mute the convivial listening with the world and with Jesus – who I believe is always asking

“Well Ivy, what do you think about that?” “why does it matter”?  “How does it make you feel?” “Who does it affect?”

… and this is detrimental – because “What do you think?” is an intimate question of Jesus to us –  and one that is the authentic means to not only KNOWLEDGE but to LOVE. 

I was reminded of this as I was riding in a car with a long-time friend one Christmas. She was talking about her own journey in her faith community, excited about the idea of forming a “women’s ministry” – and hanging in the air around the conversation was perhaps the (unspoken), larger question of just what a woman’s role in the church should be.

Her faith community currently has no women on the Board, as deacons, or as preachers.  And it was interesting because,  our conversation bounced from what her male Pastor thought about women in leadershipto the reality that there are a lack of women mentors in the community … to the seminary books that she was harkening back to, that offered her interesting thoughts and truths to wade in and consider a woman’s rightful place.

It was clear to me that the question, “What do you think?”, was not a comfortable question – external knowledge found in books and other’s voices was more credible.

I wish in the moment I had paused to get a little more curious, and ask –

“well, what is your lived experience as a woman?” 

What do you notice about women who are not given platforms for their voices to be heard?  Why do you think there might not be women mentors in your community?  What do women around you who are pastors …ehm….. LIKE ME! In this CAR! … with you RIGHT NOW!!!!….what do they think? What have they experienced? How have they engaged with scripture?

“What do you think?” is a bold and direct question – slices right to the heart, if we let it, as much as the head.  And if we frame it as a question that helps us lift our head and look around and engage with the life around us, it becomes not a question that rests on a separate doctrine or theology (where we might think only Jesus is found),  but becomes a generative question that is born and explored from exactly where you stand  – and where lo’ and behold Jesus is too.            

Conceptual and Relational Belief
(McLaren,  Spiritual Migration

The interesting thing about what we think – is that it can quickly be tied into systems of belief. That can take on a life of their own – sometimes as an immovable creed or doctrine.

Here, I think it’s helpful to talk a little bit about conceptual and relational beliefs. 

Conceptual beliefs are beliefs that are often easily expressed as statements or propositions – and when expressed in a sentence- are often right alongside the word “that”. My long-time friend in my previous story might say,

“I believe that women can not be in church leadership.”  ‘

Or

“I believe that the headship of a church is only represented by the male gender”

…  it’s a stake, a claim that something is real, true or in existence.

In contrast, relational beliefs are often followed by the preposition in.   And they are less statements – and more birthed out of a personal authenticity, lived experience that offers a confidence and sense of loyalty which permits thoughts like, “I believe in you”, “i believe in scripture”, “I believe in peace”… 

It can get complicated pretty quickly – religion or churches for example, often demand statements of conceptual belief as proof of belonging.   And also – might offer rewards or punishments based on conceptual beliefs.

This gets us into the territory of replacing conceptual beliefs as a construct over our own thinking caps. Placing a thin, invisible barrier in our minds between the beauty and the goodness and the value of the world around us  –  and constricting our own experience of God’s love. 

But relational beliefs – allow for this question, “What do you think?” – in fact to some degree they are built on this – and therefore the freedom and the health that this affords an individual and a community- allows for a foundation of LOVE.  It allows us to stay in the car together – and see the passenger next to us, sort of speak! 

Without freedom of thought, we offer and experience only an impoverished love. 

Jesus invites us to love.

And much of his ministry is spent trying to expand the systems of his day – beyond the conceptual beliefs that so many of the religious experts of his day rest on…. At one point he says to these religious experts,

“how terrible it will be for you…. You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faith. You blind guides! You filter out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Oh, how I love it when Jesus talks about gnats and camels!

Here maybe we can see the conceptual beliefs for these religious experts is to uphold the belief that one should give away a tenth of their belongings to God… but it comes at the expense of a relational belief in people!  Where real issues of  justice, mercy, and faith play out.

You can’t have conceptual beliefs – and X -out all the relational beliefs and say you are truly “loving” God. Lest we choke on camels of pride and power.

Is love present?  Is love felt? In a system that erases the eye for our world…  What do you think?  And how do we think in this vein – if we don’t engage an active, living posture to the world around us? 

This is what Jesus keeps prompting us with – through all his provoking and quirky words, stories, and actions,

“Can we imagine a Christianity of the future that gathers around something other than a list of conceptual beliefs?” (McLaren,  Spiritual Migration

Let’s take a look at  this scripture I keep mentioning: 

Matthew 17:24 – 27 (New Living Version)

24 On their arrival in Capernaum, the tax collectors for the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”

25 “Of course he does,” Peter replied.  

Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it.

But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, 

“What do you think, Peter? 

Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

26 “They tax the foreigners,” Peter replied.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free!  However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line.  Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a coin. Take the coin and pay the tax for both of us.”

Here’s a little bit of context: 

Peter has just come down from the mountain with Jesus, where he’s witnessed the transformation of Jesus.  He watched as Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes turned white – and a voice from God, booming from the clouds said,

“This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him”

(Peter fell on his face in awe –  I imagine it was a good falling on his face, with his hands out of his pockets in praise!)

It’s a pinnacle moment – confirming his loving relationship to Jesus, the human who he’s walked alongside – and linking it to the mysterious love of God.

It’s a moment for Peter, that maybe is akin to one of your more moving spiritual moments in life – where you have felt as though you are on a mountain top – so close to God and God so close to you – that  that love and that experience feels almost unbelievable.

Only of course to be interrupted by the real facts of life. A phone call, a time constraint, someone tugging at you –  needing something from you – or as in Peter’s case a tax collector…. 

A tax collector asking for payment to the temple in Jerusalem that most Jewish men are meant to pay for its upkeep.

This moment of intimacy and love of God, felt by Peter on the mountain top, likely dissipates pretty quickly.

And we see here in these verses, I believe the dynamic again of conceptual belief and relational belief  on the table with the question at hand – should Jesus and his followers have to pay this tax?

Peter’s impulsive answer is

“Yes – of course my teacher pays the tax. I believe that all Jewish men should pay the temple tax.”

An answer that Jesus doesn’t seem to disagree with. But what follows in the text, I believe is a deeply powerful move, that demonstrates Jesus’ love and value of each of us – to keep THINKING.  To keep thinking about the conceptual beliefs that we impulsively answer to …. and to also hold, and not cut-out, the relational wonder-land of Jesus’ love in front of us…. 

He asks,

“What do you think, Peter?” 

It’s an invitation I believe that is going to help Peter see that the mountaintop experience is available in all his settings – even the most mundane and annoying.

If GOD’S LOVE, at its core is about connection of all things (neighbor, self, earth) – that this is what allows for our sense of belonging….then my hope is that the intersectionality of where I encounter God and where I encounter people is all the content and all the knowledge, that I need for an experience of God’s love.   

After I fell in the puddle, in front of two teenage boys (you know every middle-aged mom’s dream), I did go to the window – determined to introduce myself, and give the directive of “don’t’ speed!” that I wanted. But all that came out, as I made my way to the window of the car, was “OW, Ow, ow, ow, ow….”

And my son came over quickly and said “are you ok, are you ok?” And the dude in the car, was stunned and unbuckling to help me – and saying the same – “oh my gosh, are you ok?”  And after a few minutes of really figuring out that I was ok – we laughed, and laughed and laughed as we replayed the video that captured all of this  – from our video doorbell on the porch… 

We are all yearning and eager to be seen and known and included. I wanted my son to show me that love – by honoring my “hour of sitting on the couch.”  But I was shown even greater depths of love as he came to my side in the rain, and paused his plans to attend to me…  *this isn’t to suggest that we should all fall on our face, to experience the love of GOD*

I realize again and again in moments like these – on sidewalks, in the rain, in the most inconvenient moments of life – that I can find a living, breathing sanctuary in the form of another human being, in the midst of the most expansive sanctuary – our Earth. And this is where I want to keep thinking (with all of who I am) – where I go for knowledge… in these everyday, sacred spaces. It’s here that we rediscover our faith as a series of stories and as a series of encounters… as quirky and as insignificant and as messy as they might seem… but as powerful and sacred as all the prayer and scripture and spiritual practices we could muster for a new year. 

Paidrag O’ Tuama, an Irish poet says that

“belonging creates and undoes us both”

likely follows the same sentiment of love…. It creates and undoes us both.

Jesus wants Peter to be undone by his love….in all of life. 

Peter’s quick reply to the tax collector, might have signaled to Jesus that the tendency of his thinking might veer more conceptual than relational and that a mountain-top experience could be compartmentalized in Peter’s mind as a distinct experience, under special circumstances. 

It seems by Jesus’ next move, that a conceptual God is not the image that Jesus is interested in putting out in the world. 

Not only does Jesus ask Peter this most loving question,

“What do you think?”

as a way to bridge the conceptual and the relational systems.

Jesus also nudges Peter a bit.  He helps him get up off the couch and get to really thinking… he says,

“GO OUT.” “Go to the lake, go to the shore – go fishing.” 

A place Peter, as a fisherman knew incredibly well. 

And there Peter encounters a miracle – finding the exact tax needed for both him and Jesus – in the coin in the fish’s mouth.

The places we know so well where we work, live and play – it seems, are teaming with not only God’s deep love – but also miracles. 

Jesus I think says –

“Oh yeah, that’s the treasure… that’s the coin in the fish’s mouth –  discovering all of this in your EVERYDAY fishing zones.”

I wish my friend could have asked me in the car:  

“Ivy, what do you think about the role of women in the church?”

Maybe we could have discovered the treasure//the miracle in the midst of us. Sharing our stories as women, sharing our vulnerability, just how much it hurt at times – and trust that that conversation could have unearthed something we both couldn’t have known ahead of time.

As we THINK, As we become awake with our hearts, and minds and souls – with lived experience as our data and content. We start to perform the miracles of today…. By not only inhabiting  – but experiencing – each day as a sanctuary free of walls, full of God’s love.

May we resolve to fall in love with Jesus again and again in 2024. And may we receive his question,

“What do you think?”

as a way to discover our very lives with our heads up, hands out, and hearts open.