Voice

Genesis 3:8-9 (Common English Bible)

8 During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees.

9 The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Holy and Loving God, you first called to them in the garden,

“where are you?”

And maybe you’re calling out to each of us now,

“where are you?”

Well we’re here at Reservoir Church this morning, but where’s our heart? Where’s our mind at? Maybe some of us are asking, Where are you God? Are you here? I pray that you would bring all of us, to right here to this moment. To find ourselves here, to find you here, to find one another in the presence of the other. Would you help us to hear the voice of God. Right here within us. That it may strike a chord within us, and transform us, through the power of your unconditional abundant love we pray, Amen. 

A few months ago I took a solo flight to California. No kids, no husband. By myself, on a six hour flight, Thank you Friend Jesus. I was really looking forward to this quiet, uninterrupted, alone six hour flight. For the flight, I packed a book and earphones. I sat down and plugged it into the seat and started scrolling through the movies. I found one, a new release, one I’ve been wanting to see, “everything everywhere all at once.” Oh I was excited. I pushed play and the screen started to move, but I heard nothing. I turned the sound up. I unplugged and plugged back in the earphones. I go back to the menu and play something else, anything, and still there is no sound. At this point I’m starting to panic a little. I look around for the flight attendant, ah they look busy, I don’t want to be that guy, but I really want to be that guy, I pressed the button with the courage to speak up for my own needs. “The sound is not working?” I said, and they said, “okay, we’ll look into it.” I turned on the caption and watched the whole movie silently, with the earphone in my ear with no sound.

Today we’re looking at God as Voice. Not the voice of God, as an attribute of a God that is personified, but trying to see and understand God through the metaphor of Voice. What is Voice?

It can be someone’s words. It can be sound. But it can also be someone’s meaning/communication that is passed to another, like “you can really see the artist’s voice coming through” a painting. What would it look and feel like to imagine, that the experience of perceiving voice, is to experience God? 

Rabbi Spitzer’s book, God is Here, has been informing these non-human metaphors for God we’ve been engaging with for the last few weeks. In this series, we’re less trying to see God as a person, but experiencing God as we might experience anything else in the world, which is not just with humans but with elements, things seen and unseen, through places, cloud, water and so forth. I want to help us distinguish the metaphor of The Voice from the attribute of the voice of God.

So whenever I say voice today, think, Capital V, Voice, not the voice of God. It feels a little weird, cause we’re trying to shift our familiar old pathways of thinking about God as a person, to God as an experience, bodily, visceral experience. It’s shifting us from thinking in our mind to understand, to feeling and experiencing and just receiving and noticing our bodies. Just as we’ve been learning more from science about just how smart the body is – how trauma lives in the body, how it’s not just the brain that carries all information of our experience, but each cell in the DNA holds the data – experiencing God, knowing the divine is not just a knowledge endeavor but a bodily experience. I’ll share with you today how Rabbi Spitzer invites us to see the experience of Voice, capital V, reveals the experience of God. 

Think of a time when you’ve been to a music concert. A rock concert, a symphony, the club. Think about how your body felt, hearing the music. How certain sounds would make you feel things, get emotional, how a sound tingled your body or gave you goosebumps. To experience music or sound means that something is changing your body. It runs through you, cuts through your heart, changes the mood, affects your emotions, and afterwards, you’re a different person. 

To showcase the Sound of God, Rabbi Spitzer highlights this text we read today. She starts with how in the beginning, it was “merely” a voice that spoke the world into existence, “Let there be light.” And in this story, where Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, we’re introduced to the word kol, the sound. Spitzer points out that it actually says,

“They heard the kol of YHVH God walking around in the Garden, at the breezy time of day.” 

Now when we’re translating, and reading, it’s hard to tell what verb goes with what noun. And Spitzer is proposing that it actually says more like

“the ‘Voice of God’ was walking around”

rather than

“hearing the sound of God walking around.”

There are no commas in the Hebrew Bible (actually there’s not even vowels actually in the original Torah!). That’s why Steve’s been telling us lately, we don’t know how to say YHWH, it might be Yehweh. Or it might be Yihwih, Yoohwooh. Sorry, was that irreverent? I like to say sometimes that I’m a very irreverent Reverend. 

While I’m on a detour, let me just take a full turn off the exit for a minute because the view is so good here. The text keeps saying, the Man and his wife. As opposed to the man and the woman,  or just them. And Lord God specifically asks

“where are you?”

to the man. Was God not looking for the woman? Or not talk to the woman directly, see here it says in the Bible, as some men have concluded in the access of the divine for women. Here’s a thing I like to point out as we read a text out of Genesis. You see, the Bible is a collection of stories. It’s not one cohesive well thought out story, as many preachers like to say and point out. Sure, there’s a full story of God we’re trying to get at, but the reality is, there’s a lot of opposing stories, and repeats of stories, and same stories with different motifs and agendas. The Jewish tradition was okay with lying differing texts right next to each other, some in not-so-chronological order, some in opposing theological views that debated with one another. 

Genesis Chapter 3, this excerpt we read, is a part of a specific source. No, the first five books of the Bible weren’t all written by one guy Moses, but actually it’s a COLLECTION of many works and authors and sources, and traditions and times! that have been compiled together. And when we look at the first few chapters of Genesis, this is clear. That there are different sources. 

There are two creation accounts. And we kept them both, right next to one another. It’s a little disorienting to read, if you read chronologically. In Genesis 1, you read the creation story, Day one, Day two, and so forth. And it was very good. God rests on the seventh day.

And then you get to Genesis 2 and we have what they call the Second Narrative, and you hear the creation story kind of all over again but different. The first narrative creates humans like this, Genesis 1:26

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us (plural)….

So God created human beings in “his” own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Now the pronouns are all mixed up here, because God refers to Godself as Godselves, a plural us, and then, it says his image, but It created them, male and female. Again, it’s impossible to have direct translation and the gender or gender neutrality of the pronouns do not come through.

In the Second Narrative, humans are created by that story you might’ve heard, which is what Genesis 2 account is, Adam takes a nap, a rib is taken out,

“It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.”

In which the word used here, Helper is the same word used in other texts to describe God as the Helper with capital H, a point that is not considered when placing women as merely an assistive role in some Christian circles, based on this text, saying that man was created first and then woman. Yes, in one creative narrative. 

You might be able to guess which narrative I like more out of the two creation stories. I didn’t even know that there were two creation stories until I went to seminary. No one told me that there are two accounts and each comes from a specific tradition. Two traditions that talk about God and our origins in two different ways.

Why is that a threat to our understanding of God? Because, of course, some folks somewhere along the way, tried to drown out a voice, by saying this one voice is the true and only source of truth, when all along, there were multiple voices and that it was okay to listen to both! 

So that is my feminist exegesis (fancy word of drawing meaning out of the Bible) of Genesis 1-3. Okay. Back to our regular programming. 

When we look at and notice the Voice, Kol, of God, we actually discover that it’s not even about the words. What God said. Or even about the sound. What it sounds like. The voice of God is not what you expect. God is actually the opposite of what we expect. Rabbi Spitzer mentions a friend of hers, Rabbi Darby Leigh, who is deaf, talking about the voice of God as not sound but vibration. Vibration as God. Which runs through everything. Which different vibrations running through us in various forms changes us, has an impact on us.

  • Does God change you?
  • Does it impact you?
  • Does God run through your body? 

Spitzer also points to another story. When the Voice at Sinai has a game-changing impact on the Israelites, when they received what’s traditionally known as the 10 commandments. It did something to them. And people were afraid, saying to Moses,

“You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!”

You know why I think they said that? Cause when we really hear what God has to say, it makes us uncomfortable. It changes everything. I don’t want everything to change. I wanna gain tips here and there, and receive a nice word. I don’t want to hear something and be completely changed, that is if I am comfortable. OR, if you are someone who is in desperate need of something to finally change, then yeah it’s a welcomed change. When you look out into the world and everything you see is centered around you and works for you, you don’t want it to change. But when everything you see, for some reason, it just does not make sense and you don’t know why but it feels like there’s gotta be something else going on. Which one are you? 

Last text I’ll share with you from Rabbi Spitzer about voice of God is from Elijah in 1st Kings. 

1 Kings 19:11-13 (New International Version)

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.

12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1

3 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I love how Rabbi Spitzer offers us a whole new light to texts I’ve heard all my life. She says, “And finally, after the fire, a kol d’mama daka–which can be translated as “a thin, silent voice” or perhaps “a sound of soft silence.” 

I’ve heard it translated as a “small still voice.” And I looked at each of the words in the Hebrew dictionary, and my translation variations are, “sound of the quiet,” “call of the still and small” “a call of the quiet.”

God is the call of the quiet. God is in the sound of the small. God is in the stillness. One of the translations of the word “still” is “crushed.” God is the sound of the crushed. 

And why does this translation make me emotional? 

Because I know what it’s like to feel crushed. To be silenced. To have to be still and quiet. To be needed to be tamed and told to be demure. Oh and yes, I will point out that I learned the word D’mamah is a feminine word. 

Where is God? This whole series is called God is here. Well according to this scripture revelation, God is not here with the preacher with the mic. Who is silent right now? Who’s heart is vibrating in the stillness? What is God saying to you? 

I remember one time I was preaching and I lost my place in my notes and I was just like frozen looking for my place on the page a good 15 seconds I think. And after the sermon, someone was like, omg that sermon, ugh, and that moment actually when you lost your place in your notes, was so rich! I was like, “yeah~”. When I said nothing at all, it was so powerful. 

Rabbi Spitzer suggested going on a week-long silent retreat. Ha! I would hate that. I’ve been on a day silent retreat before and the whole time I was anxious. It’s like busy moms talk about, after the kids have gone off to school and you finally get time to yourself, it’s like I don’t know, I’m out of practice, what do I even do with myself and all this silence? 

I think being silent is scary. I think being alone with the clearest reflection of yourself is scary. It’s like the car mirror. The lighting is too good compared to your bathroom. There’s six windows of natural light in that thing, too much clarity is not good for your confidence. 

I do notice, even though I’ve been saying it’s not the words or even the sound that matters, I do notice the two texts of the Voice saying,

“Where are you?”

and

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Where are you? What are you doing here? I think that’s the invitation of the Voice. That’s the invitation of God, asking, inquiring of you. Making the space for you, for your voice. 

Well so let me end with that, those questions and some silence. I’ll give us some space and ask the two questions three times. And I’ll end in a prayer for us. 

Feel free to close your eyes. Even put a cloak over your face if you want. 

Where are you? What are you doing here?

……….

Where are you? What are you doing here?

………..

Where are you? What are you doing here?

………..

In the stillness, you are there God. We want to notice you. We want to feel your presence. We need you… to pull us from the cacophony of this busy world, ground us from the restless grasping of our minds, for our souls are indeed restless until we find our rest in you. Give us peace. Help us to bring ourselves to find you in the silence, we pray. For us to make the time, carve out the space, to just be with you, to just listen. Voice, speak to us. We pray, Amen. 

 

Place

Genesis 28:10-22

Jacob’s dream at Bethel

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran.

11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there.

12 He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it.

13 Suddenly the Lord was standing on it[a] and saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

14 Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants.

15 I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.

17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.

18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it.

19 He named that sacred place Bethel,[b] though Luz was the city’s original name.

20 Jacob made a solemn promise: “If God is with me and protects me on this trip I’m taking, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear,

21 and I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.

22 This stone that I’ve set up as a sacred pillar will be God’s house, and of everything you give me I will give a tenth back to you.”

“But the most important thing about “place” is that we’re always in one. The underlying irony of calling God “HaMakom/ The Place” is that there isn’t just one place to encounter godliness–that can happen in any place. “Place” is here in this moment, right where we are. The metaphor of God as Place invites us to open ourselves to the potential godliness of any and every moment, in any place that we might find ourselves.” (81)

Fearful, difficult place

Do you have a relationship with a place? A certain place that you treasure, maybe a place you go back to again and again when you need a respite from whatever challenges you’re facing in life. Maybe it’s not the same place, but a kind of place, a place with trees and some natural water. Or even a favorite cafe or the Museum of Fine Art, where you can just immerse yourself in art and it does something to your soul, your spirit. Or maybe it’s a nook in your house, a little corner where you can hold a cup of tea and just look around and be still and present. 

I did. When I was really little, in Korea. We lived in this really strange place. It was in this kind of a commercial building. The first floor was a bar. The second floor was a church. The third floor a business office of some sort. And the fourth floor was our house, the penthouse. It was a huge place. It had this long layout that was from the entrance, bathroom, huge living room, kitchen and dining and then two rooms. And because the apartment was so big, it was kind of a scary place. But I had this spot. It was right at the corner of a sectional couch at the far end of the living room. When you sat there you could see the whole place and nothing, no monsters or scary things could be behind you. 

A place that makes you feel a certain way. A place that you interact with, where you experience things. A place that beholds you, envelopes you, that even when you think of it, you can smell or feel what you felt when you were there. 

We’re in this series called God is Here , inspired by a book called God is Here: Reimagining the Divine by Rabbi Toba Spitzer and today’s metaphor is God as a Place. The series is full of these non-human or inanimate objects as God, God as Cloud, Rock, as Voice.

I love that our Christian church is in dialogue with other religions, in the pluralistic world we live today. If you were here during our Fall series where we went over our church’s core values, you know that humility is one of them. We listen and learn and are in conversation with other faith traditions and so it was of course a delight to engage with a notable female Jewish scholarship. 

And while I’m working on this sermon, I’m hearing some ridiculous things on the news this week about Kanye West, a big hip hop artist, saying anti Semetic things. Let me just get this out of the way. As a Christian, when Kanye first came out with the song Jesus Walks With Me years ago that got played on the radio, I’ll be honest, it was cool. Hey I even like hearing that Justin Beiber goes to church. They’re talented musicians and a slice of American Christianity that we need to reckon with. 

I know this might feel a bit off topic from God as a place, but this is important. Christian history holds so much pain and atrocities, that is a part of our faith tradition and history, that is not pretty and we don’t get to just not talk about it. 

I remember in seminary my New Testament professor Eugene Park going on about how the road to Damascus, where St. Paul, the guy who wrote Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and so forth, has traditionally been called Paul the convert or the moment of conversion when he heard the voice of Jesus. Professor Park was adamant about correction to this, went on and on, and I was like what’s the big deal.

He pressed that it was in fact not a conversion but a call to ministry. Because at the time, there was no Christianity and Christ followers were considered a SECT of Judaism. Christianity was a sect, an extension of Judaism. We’re cousins! We’re all one family! The notion of antisemitism came from Christian theology and even the way some read the Bible saying that the Jews killed Jesus. You guys, Jesus WAS Jewish! The modern day Christians and the Christian church need to clarify, you, me, us, Reservoir Church, needs to clarify not only ideologies and sentiments but theologically and biblically that antisemitism is wrong and that as Christians we need to denounce antisemitism. 

The Jewish scholarship and Rabbanic teachings have so much to teach and inform Christian theology. They’ve been studying some of these texts in the Old Testament much longer than Christian biblical scholars have. We’re inextricably connected in our stories. Without an open, humble, receptive, teachable spirited dialogue with Judaism in Christian faith endeavor, is like trying to understand my mom with talking only to me and not my sister. She would be livid and frankly it would be inaccurate. 

Can we celebrate a YES AND faith, where it’s not this or that, but a yes and. Christians believed that Jesus revealed something really unique about God through the person of Jesus. Yes and, the first and third person of the trinity, God the Creator and the Holy Spirit has so much offer that we have been missing out on cause we’re so bent on high Christology that we’ve actually discriminated against two other persons of the trinity, leaving us with a not as full a picture of God as we could have if we would only be more open to the mysteries of a grand and expansive picture of God that includes diversity of perspectives. Let’s stop just focusing only on one revelation and being adamant, this is it! I’ve found it! Great! So have they, and him, and her. Ask them about their experiences. It will only enlighten you, even frustrate you, which is a path for spiritual growth. If that’s what you want. 

So, God as a place. Let’s try a minute, and set aside personifications of God, for which we have had many interactions with, Jesus being one, and seeing God as a Father, Lord, etc. Which of course produced many beautiful revelations about who God is, but I’m thinking of Jesus saying in so many parts of the New Testament scriptures, Jesus is like, I’m right here explaining things so plainly and you still don’t understand? If you have seen Jesus, you have seen God, yes and there is so much mystery and hiddenness still yet. So let us suspend God as a person like figure for a moment and consider this metaphor of God as a place. 

In this Genesis text, Jacob has an encounter with God in this place. It’s a moment in his life actually, where it’s not like he went to a church to worship or on some kind of silent retreat at a Zen center. He was on the run. The section before this story in the Bible is subtitled, “Jacob Escapes Esau’s Fury.” His brother was actually trying to kill him to be exact. Jacob stops at this spot at night, just so he can get some rest, grabs a rock for a pillow. And it is there, in the midst of drama, fear for his life, probably in a panic, he has a dream.

It says,

“He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome.” 

Spitzer says,

“in the space of just nine verses, the word for “place,” makom–is repeated six times. This is a clue that this word is very important.”

She goes on to say,

“And while Jacob understands “the place” to be a gateway to the heavens, the word describing his dream points repeatedly to the earth, to the rocks and the dirt on which he is lying. This profound experience of God’s presence doesn’t happen up at the top of the ladder but down here on the ground.” 

This profound experience of God’s presence doesn’t happen up at the top of the ladder but down here on the ground. 

I resonate with this, kind of temperamentally, or rather probably more culturally, I don’t know but it’s something deeply rooted in me. 

When I worship, I hardly hardly raise my hands. My body just does not do this. When I’m really connecting with God, it’s hardly a feeling of elation or even joy. Maybe I’m a bit melancholic. Maybe you find that hard to believe cause I’m always so smiley with y’all on Sunday mornings. What I love to do when I pray, or even “praise” I don’t know even the word praise is like weird, when I sing about God, what I really want to do is this: get into a fetal position, hurl over and rock back and forth.

This was the position of my mother in prayer in early morning prayers that they went to at 6am every single day of their working ministry (my father was a pastor, but mother was a plus one) of their life. It’s actually a Buddhist tradition, the early morning prayer, that Korean adapted when missionaries came to Korea. Early morning prayers were always so full of wailing, crying, moaning, and beating of their chests and ground. 

Spitzer kind of talks about this too, saying,

“I find that people associate “spiritual” with “pleasant.” They assume that all spiritual experiences share a positive vibe, consisting either of ecstatic joy or blissful serenity….”

and goes on to say that

“Jacob is in quite a difficult emotional place when he has his dream. He is vulnerable and alone, and he doesn’t seem entirely reassured even after he receives God’s wonderful promises. Upon waking from his dream, Jacob is still fearful and mistrustful. Yet he realizes that he is in the presence of Something godly and powerful. He learns that there is godliness even in places where we wish we didn’t have to be.”

Have you ever found yourself in places where you wish you didn’t have to be? Are you in a place now where you wish you weren’t at? Maybe a difficult work environment. A home that is falling apart that you can’t afford to fix or change the situation. Or wherever you find yourself, you find yourself there stressed, longing to be elsewhere? 

Rabbi Spitzer says,

“the most important thing about “place” is that we’re always in one.”

It’s like, wherever you go, there you are. When work is stressful, and family life is difficult, and friendships are tricky–it’s not the place, or the situation, the common denominator is you! Just kidding…. Spitzer says, well,

“that’s the underlying irony of calling God, “HaMakom/ The Place” is that there isn’t just one place–that can be any place.” 

Wherever you are, there is The Place. God is there. 

I also like how HaMakom, kind of sounds like, Ah My Home. That’s just cause I like play on words. And speaking of play on words, Spitzer says,

“Jewish tradition associates the divine name Hamakom with comfort and compassion. This may be because the Hebrew word for compassion comes from the root for womb, which is the first “place” we all find ourselves in.” 

Womb. Home. The Place. 

In the Jewish tradition, they would often use the divine name, HaMakom as a blessing,

“May Hamakom comfort you among all the mourners of Zion.”, “May HaMakom / The Place have compassion upon you and all who are sick.”

It reminds me of the times, when I felt like places, institutions, systems, organizations, even churches and family have failed me, and the promise of capitalism, vocation, this modern day social environment that I was supposed to thrive in, I was failing. When I was graduating college with no job lined up, my university failed me. When I was alone with no community around, my college campus group and the Korean church had failed me.

When I felt useless, having trouble finding even motivation to do simple tasks like get up in the morning to wash my face, I felt like my parents failed me to prepare me for this hard cruel world. All I had was the ground I was sitting on. Everyone let me down. The only thing that was catching my tears was the carpet in my room. So there I cuddled with the wet rug, crying out to God, where are you? 

I love the invitation in yoga at the end, the Shavasana. The teacher usually says something like, there’s nothing for you to do, except to feel the ground that’s holding you up. Grateful that without any effort it’s supporting you. All you have to do is trust it and release. And I’m like, just puddy after a great work out, just so grateful for the ground. I get it Jacob, this place is awesome. 

No matter what you’re going through, wherever you are, May HaMakom, the Place behold you, support you, catch your tears, cuddle you when you feel alone. May that kind of God be real to you. May the Place that is always there remind you, that God is here just as real as the ground we’re sitting and standing on right now.

Action

The Scripture reading today comes from 

John 5:1-9

5 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.

2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.

3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

[4] [b] 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Let me pray for us.

A few months back my husband came to me, almost panicked, showing me his phone. It was his Health App that showed his steps. He scrolled through showing that he averaged 3,000 steps a day. He hadn’t really used the app so this was news to him. Now, my husband runs every day, in the morning, rain or shine or snow almost. But he works from home. I laughed at him going, “Yeah you need to be more active,” assuming that I’d probably be definitely over, because I often work outside of home for meetings and things. And then we checked my app and it was just sad. I averaged even worse than him, about 2000 steps. And no I do not run every day. 

It turns out, according to Washington Post’s clickbait headline: “Sitting all day can cause health problems, even if you exercise” to which I gladly clicked.

Did you work out for 30 minutes today? Did you spend the rest of the day staring at your computer screen and then settle in front of the television at night? If you answered yes to both questions, then you meet the definition of what scientists call, “an active couch potato.” 

Are you an active couch potato? Apparently it’s bad for your health. 

We’ve been doing a deep dive into Reservoir Church’s Core Values, Connection, Freedom, Everyone, Humility, and last but not least today’s is Action. Our website says:

  • Action: Love for Jesus compels us to act—to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

Right off the bat I’d like to say, it’s not

“Look busy, Jesus is coming.”

I’m not going to nag for you to do more. It’s actually, Action is first and foremost based on Love. It says that Love for Jesus compels us to act. So I’ll say a bit more about that later. But yes, it is an invitation to get up and walk and take action, because many of us can feel at times, like we’ve been paralyzed. 

So I’ll start with first, the paralyzing state that we might find ourselves in, second, the healing that it takes to compel us to get up and walk, and lastly, the love that Jesus has for us and this very world that we live in

So first the paralyzing state. 

I remember in the middle of the pandemic when we made pastoral phone calls to the members of our church, a short 20 minute check in during the height of a weird time in our world. I remember talking with Don, one of our members, about the simple desire to just go outside and get some fresh air. It was during that time when literally everything except the grocery store was shut down. When we didn’t go anywhere without a mask on. Don and I chatted encouragingly,

Let’s, even if it’s at least stepping just outside of our front doors, standing there with nowhere to go, stretch, breath, feel the sun on our face. 

And I do feel like many of us are coming out of this dormant time, of keeping safe, of taking care, saying no to many things. Some of you have been feeling the effects of being isolated more, working from home, while pretty awesome in many ways, also has proved to be tricky in “getting back out there” for some of us. 

I think the world can be a paralyzing place. The pandemic, the racial violence, political upheaval, the changing climate, the recession. It is no wonder that so many of us are struggling with anxiety and preoccupied with how we’re to do daily tasks in the face of great worries of our generation. 

Sometimes I feel this way about racism. Like it’s a thing that’s been going on for a long time, years, decades, centuries, nations, people groups have been at it a while and what am I to do about it, if anything at all? It sure does make me feel like it’s been in this condition for a long time. 

I’m intrigued by the way Jesus engages this man who’s been paralyzed for 38 years. It says,

“When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?””

Jesus’ first question isn’t, so what have you been trying to do? What have you done? The man answers as though, as if others have asked, but have you tried going to the pool that heals during the time when it’s stirring? I mean others have, and they’ve been healed. What’s wrong with you? He answers with excuses, defenses,

“no one’s helping me. And when I try, others get in front of me.”

Understandably so. 

Because of this core value of Action, Reservoir is deeply involved with an organization called the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. It’s a 60+ institution coming together to organize power to make a public change for good. It’s given me very specific ways to act even in the midst of feeling paralyzed at the face of systemic problems like the healthcare system and housing crisis. One story I want to share with you. 

One of the recent issues we were working on was housing. GBIO’s method for big change starts with what they call 1 on 1’s. Two people sharing their heart, passion, their concern, their reason for why they want to see change. And from those 1 on 1’s, we began to meet people who lived in the Mildred C Hailey, a city owned apartment complex in Jamaica Plain, who were living under horrible conditions like rats and asbestos.

Now at the time the Boston Mayoral race was going on and GBIO was ready to ask the candidates for some commitments, if they were elected. During a big action Zoom call with close to a 1,000 people from GBIO, about 60 of you Reservoir Faith Into Action folks, we shared the stories and showed videos of the conditions and got a commitment from then mayor hopeful Wu. The end result, as of now, GBIO has secured $50 million with Mayor Wu for maintenance for the Mildred C Hailey Housing. 

You see the residents city-owned spots like this are often ignored and so discouraged to speak up. No one seemed to help them and others got the money before they could get to it. They’ve spoken up before and got no answer. It seemed as though they were paralyzed. But someone turned to them and initiated a conversation, do you want these conditions to change? Do you want to be well? 

I want to quickly touch up on the fact that many Christian traditions often guilted people into taking action and doing good deeds. Scriptures like this for example were used, from James 2:14-17

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?

15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.

16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?

17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

So with that, so many of us got busy. Served. Led. Sacrificed. Which of course, this text is important, talking about the REAL needs of the people. 

I remember a youth group retreat where the theme was, “In the World, But Not of It.” It was drilled into us that the world was evil, bad, and anything of the world was no good. And you should only think of your spiritual being. Prayer, scripture reading, that was important. And everything else, especially our earthly bodies, oh that was really bad. You should fast and of course abstain from anything that gives us pleasure, at all cost. I remember we never talked about the goodness of the earth, the goodness of our bodies, the sacredness of the environment or the earth that we live in. 

Action, that we’re talking about at Reservoir isn’t “do good.” Read on, it says that LOVE compels us. So before action, we need to understand love. Before we walk, we need to be healed. Before we do good, we need to receive and be loved, and it’s that miracle and healing that will change your life and those around you. 

Let me offer you another text, not to replace some possible toxic ways of thinking about our faith and our works, but to be in conversation. That’s how we should be reading the Bible. Not letting one verse dictate how and what you do at all times, but there is a season for everything.

The Bible instructs us in accordance with the Holy Spirit and the conviction of our heart from Jesus and in conversation in community. The  Bible is meant to be a conversation partner not an instruction manual. So here’s another one, 

Titus 3:4-7

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to this mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

I shared this with my Community Group this past week and my friend Rachel said, it sounds like God’s not really worried about our performance review. Exactly. 

“Do you want to get well?” Is the question for us today. Not, “So what are you going to DO?” This is the conversation we want to be having. Are you compelled by the love of Jesus? That’s our tagline right? Reservoir Church exists to invite everyone, without exception to discover the love of Jesus, joy of living, and gift of community. It all begins and ends with the love of Jesus. 

Love compels us to ask questions and start conversations about how we can help each other live in better conditions amidst the housing crisis. Love compels us to listen to the voice of Jesus and engage in a conversation about how to be well when we’re feeling paralyzed. Love compels us to be freed from anxiety and worry to lean into shared interest of making a public change toward public good with other churches and even other faiths. Love compels us to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

Because God so loved the world, yes this world. Not thoughts and prayers but this material physical world with rats, asbestos, rising oceans, guns, violence, racism, mental health crisis. I think the loudest thing God was saying through Jesus was, I care about the human body and the human condition. I care about your thirst, hunger, and your pain.

God loves and care about you, and your issues and concerns and your problems, because God cares about you, not your productivity, your effectiveness, your efficiency, your list of accomplishments, but about you at the core that  may produce productivity effective, your gifts sure may come in the form of action that help you and help others, but that was always meant to be a response, not the starting point. 

Not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to this mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. You know what birth is right? You did nothing to be born. Like the waters of baptism today, you were blessed, while we knew nothing of it. 

My favorite part about this Titus text is the word heir. You know what I think about when I think of an heir. Paris Hilton. I’m dating myself to a guilty-pleasure reality tv show about her, a rich heiress of the Hilton Hotels, being tasked to do things like farming. Or another show I’m thinking of is Undercover Millionaire.

Can you tell that I am indeed a very active couch potato and the genre of choice is brainless reality shows? But think about it, how would your actions change if you found out that you were an heir to the riches you can’t even imagine? Everything you do would change. You would have nothing to lose. Well, this text is saying you are, you are an heir. You are the sons, and daughters, the children, the offspring of God. I don’t think we believe that, most of us, we sure don’t act like it. Why not? 

Have you encountered the love of Jesus? If not, don’t get into action. Find that love first. Be healed first. But if any of you have tasted or seen the goodness of God, the riches of his mercy, get up, pick up your mat, and walk proudly and boldly. Let the love of Jesus overflow out of you, like a cup that overflows. If you have, you can’t help but get into action, you’d be compelled to action that you wouldn’t need a preacher telling you to do anything. What is God compelling you to do? 

I want to end our time with some space for reflection. For you to start asking those questions, where am I with this? Am I paralyzed? Am I in need of healing? What is God compelling me to do? 

In this age of anxiety, I’m one of those who’ve been drawn to mindfulness practices, especially in the face of trauma, when I experience racism, when I see injustice, I get angry, I grieve, I get paralyzed and I can’t fix anything. Self care for those in activism is a big one. And you know it’s just another language for prayer. For a quiet time of stillness to hear the loving kind voice of God within you. Let me end with that invitation and I’ll close us in prayer. 

Feel free to close your eyes to get a little intimate with your heart, body, and mind. Take a few deep breaths to center you. Try to relax some tension that brings anxiety or worry, thoughts of things to do, try to let go of those, or like shelve them for a minute, you can always pick them back up later. Try to relax and give yourself a sacred safe space. How have you experienced the love of God? Or where do you need the healing loving presence of God now? Stay there. Is there some physical image, or a word, or a feeling? Hold that and stay there. Feel free to place a hand on your heart to kind of seal that in with the warm touch. I’ll pray for us. 

God, I pray for the healing power of Jesus right now. You know where each of us are. What each of us needs. What each of us are capable of. Heal us. Lead us. Guide us. Call us, we pray. Call our anxious, worried, often fearful generation to get up. Call us to your love. To your home. And there, in the safety of your house, may we come to see the world with your eyes, with your grace, with your mercy, just as it’s been poured upon us, we pray all these things in the precious holy name of Jesus Christ, The great Healer, Amen. 

Holy Spirit as Chi: Understanding The Holy Spirit in a Global Context

Acts 1:1-21

Pentecost

2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 

Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.

3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.

4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.

7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?

8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?

9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism),

11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?”

13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words!

15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!

16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

    Your young will see visions.

    Your elders will dream dreams.

18     Even upon my servants, men and women,

        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

        and they will prophesy.

19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above

    and signs on the earth below,

        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.

20 The sun will be changed into darkness,

    and the moon will be changed into blood,

        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.

21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.[a]

Let me pray for us. 

Holy and Loving God, we give you thanks for bringing us here today. However we find ourselves this morning, whether we’re worried about something, anxious, excited, or sad or apathetic, we believe that you meet us here, right exactly where we are. And that you meet us with the exact measure of grace and mercy as we need it. So would you help us to know that, to feel that, that you move toward us and surround us with your presence and love right now, as we listen and speak into the word. Reveal to us, through your Holy Spirit. Amen. 

My talk today has a really long title. It’s called, “Holy Spirit as Chi: Understanding the Holy Spirit in a global context” It’s inspired by a book by a Korean-American theologian named Grace Ji-Sun Kim, titled Reimagining Spirit: Wind, Breath, and Vibration. 

The Holy Spirit has always been a little left out of the Trinity throughout history. Christians believe in a Triune God, God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, three in one. It’s really hard to explain. It’s a mystery. Christians are monotheiest, meaning they believe in one God, but this one God has three “persons” that are interdependent and in interplay with one another. Some say the creation came to be out of the overflow of love out of trinity. Some try to describe it by saying it’s like three different forms of water, like God is ice, Jesus is water, and Holy Spirit is vapor. But even when it’s always been kind of tricky to explain this Holy Trinity, Christians time and time again have come back to this language to describe God because it is central to everything we believe. But like I said, Holy Spirit always kind of gets the backseat. It’s easier to explain God and Jesus and Holy Spirit is, it’s like this thing. It doesn’t even get as much airtime in all of Christian podcasts combined I bet. 

They actually struggled with this in the 3rd century. There were heresies like that the trinity was hierarchical, God was here, Jesus middle, and Holy Spirit at the bottom, called the heresy of Subordination. And actually a whole slew of heresies surrounding the trinity came up again and again. And every time they settled, “hey Holy Spirit is a person too!” Why? Why did the early church, in light of God and Jesus always keep the Holy Spirit in the mix, even when it was confusing and even cause for muddling of their beliefs? 

Well, so let’s talk about the Holy Spirit today. What is it? How can we understand it better? How can it help us understand God and how God works in our lives? And you know what’s a good way to talk about the Holy Spirit? Metaphor! Sorry that was a little inside joke for the weekly attenders because last week I mentioned how every time I preach, I’m just like, “hey it’s a metaphor.” But hey, that’s what we’ve got with God-talk things. And Jesus always spoke in parables. Which parables and metaphors are not JUST a symbol of the real thing, but a thing that reveals the “real thing” sometimes in a more accurate manner than simply defining it. 

Jesus spoke in parables because it was truth set in context. Truth about God told in their own languages, about farming, oil candles, and brides. God-talk, religion, is always like this. It’s always set in context. Out of context, nothing makes sense. We understand one another more often than not because of some kind of shared context. Let me give you an example. 

When I first started learning English, learning idioms was the most difficult thing. That and culture. It made no sense to me to hear that, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” There wasn’t a good explanation for that idiom. I just had to keep living and speak English to understand it. And culture. I didn’t understand, growing up, why The Simpsons was such a funny or great show because even though I knew English, I generally didn’t understand the show. Jeopardy intimidated me, not because I wasn’t smart, because I knew I was smart, but I was just simply left out of the inside joke, or inside knowledge.

I didn’t get the references. After learning English at my grade level proficiency, you know what I did to become “more American?” I read and memorized the Trivia Pursuit that we picked up from a garage sale. Q: What painter is most famous for his series of water lilies? Q: Who played Sally Rogers in the Dick Van Dyke Show? Every card I flipped made me feel more American. 

Okay, why am I going on about this? I have a point I swear. I’ll get to what Holy Spirit is soon. 

Here’s why I’m giving you all this context to talk about the Holy Spirit. Dr. Kim in the book I mentioned says this:

“These debates (about trinity and the Holy Spirit) were largely grounded on Greek philosophy, and they relied on these categories to debate, discuss, and learn about God. This continued into the Medieval period and through the Reformation. European influence has dominated all Western discourse about the nature of God and theTrinity for two millennia. Take the phrase, the “absolute dependence on God,” coined by Friedrick Schleiermacher (1768-1834). It makes sense in a Eurocentric theology, but less so for African or Asian theologies. For example, in Asia, where there is heavy influence and practice of Buddhism, one practices ‘emptying’ rather than ‘dependence’. Schleiermacher’s way of thinking does not resonate or appeal to this Asian ideology as effectively as it may for the European mind. Euro-theology has shaped and molded Christian thinking for the past two thousand years. It’s difficult to shake off this kind of thinking or to allow different types of thinking to have any kind of prominence. Christian theology has too often been an  exclusive club for white, male, European theologians, without the necessary inclusion of minority voices and representation.”

When a person of color says things like this I think, it’s not anything against Europeans. I think Euro-centric thinking has contributed so much to christian theology. It’s “yes, and.” Yes, and. 

Conversations like this also unveil the fact that the American Christianity that many if not most of you have heard about or been in and around, is set in a particular context. One of the first things I learned in seminary that really blew my mind is postmodernism. A fancy way of saying bluntly a really harsh truth that: “there is no objective reality.” And not even in christianity.

There is no objective way to say something. Everything we say about God is set in context. There’s another fancy word that’s used in theology, sitz im leben, which is German for “setting in life.” This phrase was so central, I swear, everytime I had a test question that I wasn’t sure about in seminary, when in doubt, I mentioned this phrase and I probably got the test question right. 

It means that we need to distill everything we hear and learn through their sitz im leben, and then contextualize it to our own setting in life. How do we do that? Well, it’s hard. But there is so much that’s revealed in cross-cultural endeavors that many mono-cultured folks can’t help but have a need for backpacking trips through southeast Asia. It means that when you talk to someone from another country, the conversation slows down, not because they are slow, but because you’re in two different contexts.

You have to listen to things being explained like,

“In my country people….”

For me, being bi-cultural, American and Korean, has helped me so much in understanding Christianity and faith, something about the crossing of worlds between the ancient near east world of Jesus’ time and today’s world. That’s why there’s so many different translations of the Bible. And it can be said, they are all right.

So let me get to my translation of the Holy Spirit in my setting in life that has made a difference in my life. And for me to share it, is not a departure from scripture or “traditional” theology of the spirit because it is the spirit who lives and breathes through me that has given me this thinking. To see the Holy Spirit as Chi, which is the Chinese word for a kind of energy that flows through all of life, may feel like a jump to some but it feels like home for me.

I’m not Chinese but Chinese and Korean share a lot of history, they’re right next to each other. The Korean word would be Gi, but I just used Chi because more Americans are more familiar with Chi than Gi. See, I have to over explain. Asian American theologian Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim has helped me widen my theology. She talked about learning about the Holy Spirit through indiginous shamanism and through the understanding of vibration in science. She gave me permission to widen the box that God was in, that seemed to be bulging out at weird places and not working out for me. 

And actually many people of color, and also many white people these days are decolonizing faith. That just means that they are unpacking faith, translating it for themselves, making it their own. Even European missionaries have come to realize this, that when the local indigenous people embrace Christianity with and through their already existing ideologies and cultures, rather than a complete do-over, it tends to “stick” more. I do believe that this is what happened in the Bible text that I read today about Pentecost. That’s what the power of the Holy Spirit does. It speaks to each of us in our own language. 

The Spirit knows no bounds, no language, no culture. It moves in and through it all. And I’d like to point out that it makes it look like you’re doing something crazy. 

Have you felt this way, for some of us who have been beginning to decolonize your faith? Others think you’re crazy. Concerned that you’re moving away from the faith. That you’re drunk on wine at 9am in the morning. What, women can be pastors? Gay people can be pastors? What!? 

Christianity, I have something to say to you. This is how you survive the pluralistic postmodern world. We have to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the global context. Let the Spirit speak through all different languages just as it did on that FIRST day after Jesus ascended into heaven, Chapter 2 of Acts, the book that accounts the early history of the church. It’s not as much,

“get with the program”

as much as

“Let’s start at the beginning. A very good place to start.”

when the Spirit of God first blew through that room. 

Do you know how good it feels to get the reference? Something that is familiar. That you resonate with. They did this in classical music, which is euro-centric but really a brilliant time period and place of a music genre. Composers will use a formula that worked so well. At the beginning of a song they will introduce a very simple melody line. And then throughout the course of the song Mozart would play variations of that line, faster, slower, in a different key, but the best part is when that melody line comes back in the pure form, and you recognize it, that’s when the audience ears perk up, and they smile, and relax, and enjoy and feel a kind of resolution, and it stays with them, that original line. 

Seeing the Holy Spirit as Chi felt like that for me. The metaphors that worked at one time but failed to hold up at times – Greek philosophy, legal terms (think Calvin/reformation), and so on suddenly settled into my heart, mind, body, and soul like never before.

The Old Testament referred to the Spirit as Ruach, breath of God, and in the New Testament as pneuma, great metaphors of the life force in nature. Yes, And. Here’s what Dr. Kim said,

“An understanding of the association of chi with the Holy Spirit or identification of chi as the Holy Spirit enables us to learn that chi is divine and is the true healer of bodies. Chi has been and is continually being used in healing. Chinese emperors, philosophers, and physicians have understood healing with the movement of chi in the body. Most believed that illnesses occurred when one’s chi is blocked and therefore it was important to redirect the chi to flow within the body. In traditional Korean practice, these beliefs are still held. Hence the understanding of chi is fundamental to healing oneself.”

And what I needed wasn’t understanding but healing.

When I read Afrian-American Theologians like James Cone, in his beautiful beautiful book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” it would speak to me that what I needed wasn’t a savior but a liberator. 

Maybe the Holy Spirit as Chi speaks to some of you in your own language. Or maybe some of you are like, Lydia’s drunk on wine and it’s only 10 am in the morning. But that’s why I speak up, as jumbled as my words get sometimes. As illogical, incomprehensible, and nonsensical I feel sometimes. I hope it’s recognizable to at least a few of you. Because I also know how it feels to be the person who never got the reference. 

Whenever someone says anything in our church at Reservoir I hope, we say to ourselves.

“How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? American, Chinese, and Korean; as well as residents of South America, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, Africa, Mali, Liberia, and Ghana, Haiti and Caribbean Islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the regions of Mexico bordering Texas; and visitors from India, and indigenous people, and Millenials, Gen Z, those who are on the autism spectrum, who struggle with anxiety and depression, who are differently abled, rich, poor, barely middle class, different gender identities—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other,

“What does this mean?” 

I pray that we continue to get surprised and bewildered, asking again and again,

“What does this mean?”

together. Let me pray for us. 

Healing Spirit, that is always continually moving in and through us, reveal to us the power of your love and peace that surpasses all understanding, one that speaks specifically and uniquely to each of our understanding and being. Thank you for ever present power of the Holy Spirit, that greets us and meets us wherever we are, wherever we’re from, wherever we’re going. You are faithful. You are love. Help us know receive you we pray. Amen. 

 

 

The Kingdom of God Within

Luke 17:20-21

20 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation;

21 nor will they say, [f]‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is [g]within you.”

Let me pray for us. 

Loving God, give us the grace to be in tune with you now. No matter where our hearts may be, no matter what’s on our minds, whether broken or scattered, or stubborn or indifferent, soften us through the power of your loving grace and mercy. We seek to create an empty space, a humbling space to hear truth, maybe through or maybe despite my words, that in the hearts and minds of each of us, you speak to us more loudly and clearly than anything I can arouse. Infuse in us the Holy Spirit, our teacher, our guide, who leads us and comforts us no matter the perils. Be with us now we pray and reveal to us your kingdom. Amen. 

I recently watched a film called My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. It was on the critically acclaimed list, so it must be good, and lately I am drawn to the sea, the ocean, the nature of all things that makes me feel small. It’s a documentary about a man, amidst a place of crisis and feeling stuck in life, decides to go back to one of his fondest childhood activities, diving underwater. There he encounters an octopus and from then on decides to go back to that same diving spot day after day, every day. He ends up going for more than 300 days, and the film captures that journey. Oh it’s beautifully shot. Just the wondrous and enchanting place that is underwater. And an octopus is a fascinating creature. Did you know that with its eight legs, sometimes on the ocean floor, it lands two of its legs down and walks, looking like a lady in an extravagant ball gown strutting about? 

I’ve been on a social media break lately and this journey of the filmmaker Craig Foster, intrigued me. The desire to just go underwater. Away from all the problems of the world, away from the busyness, the stress, and the pressures of life. Just dive down deep, and be completely engulfed in silence. 

I think spirituality can have that draw sometimes. In that deep spiritual presence of God in the inner places of my thoughts. That’s one of the reasons that this text today has always had a special place in my heart and in my theology. Kingdom of God within. The Kingdom of God within me! Oh how I longed to know and experience that. I have been so comforted by the knowledge that the name of God in Hebrew are breath vowels, YWHW, too holy to speak, that the Jewish people used a whole another name, Adonai when speaking of God. This breath that hovered over the waters in creation. The Holy Spirit as breath and wind has always spoken to me 

But can I be real with you? I landed on this text with the desire to share this particular idea, that God is inside you. That you can access God right here in your breath, as you look deeply close to your inner being. I wanted to say,

“See! Even Jesus said, God is within you!”

However the spirit of God had other plans and brought me to another place that I need to share with you. It was humbling, as I read and researched the text, that it wasn’t taking me where I was planning to go with it, but also more wondrous and expansive than my own spiritual longings. 

Just like my own spiritual longings, I think the church has also had this obsession with finding and pinpointing to that thing. That thing, that love, that peace, that kingdom of God, that reign of God when all is well and everything is good. While I was trying to find it here, it’s in here!

(When the text clearly says, 

no one can say, “look the kingdom of God, see right here, it’s here!”), 

the church has often pointed to a literal heaven, specifically the afterlife. This apocalyptic language that has been central to American Christianity didn’t come out of thin air, but yes, it was very rooted in the biblical apocalyptic language that existed to describe and talk about God, or the reign of God. Some called it Kingdom of Heaven, some called it Kingdom of God, interchangeably, and yes it was trying to get at that thing, I believe, that we’re all seeking for. The Jewish tradition sometimes calls it Shalom. That state of peace, but not just nice peace, but justice, harmony, interconnectedness. And so actually the rest of today’s text, Jesus does go on using this similar apocalyptic language, talking about Noah’s flood, and Sodom’s rain of fire.

Jesus says in verse 34-37,

34 I tell you, in that night there will be two [j]men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left.

35 Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.

36 [k]Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.”

37 And they answered and said to Him, “Where, Lord?” So He said to them, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.””

Apocalyptic language was a genre. But, well,  it was based on reality. Reality that under Roman’s rule, complete destruction from the enemy was absolutely a possibility for them. That was their impending doom.. 

The notable new testament scholar N.T. Wright says this,

“The passage does not refer to an event in which natural or supernatural forces will devastate a town, a region, or the known world; rather like so many of Jesus’ warnings in Luke, it refers to the time when enemy armies will invade and wreak sudden destruction. The word that means ‘vultures’ is the same word as ‘eagles’ (ancient writers thought vultures were a kind of eagle), and there may be a cryptic reference here to the Roman legions, with the eagles as their imperial badge.”

It wasn’t about the “end times” but it was about a real current threat, speaking to the lived fears of the day. Something that they were worried about, a political, military issue of their time. And Jesus was speaking right to it, about it. 

A slice of Christian theology has come to pinpoint the kingdom of God as entering heaven or hell in the afterlife, understandably based on such apocalyptic literature. Many of you, probably most of you are too familiar with this, even if you are new to faith or didn’t grow up in the church. But if you did, maybe even more so, you’ve heard about the importance of being baptized or converting to Christianity so that you may go to heaven after you die.

Somewhere along the line, a helpful metaphor to describe the current issue of the day, became a literal place that drove people into shame or fear to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I do think the metaphor CAN be helpful, in revealing the truth, but sometimes I feel like… I preach about once a month and every time I preach, I just want to say, “it’s a metaphor!” And metaphors are powerful but it can be unhelpful and sometimes even toxic and dangerous when taken literally. 

I was talking to a friend who’s left the church for a while. They said,

“why should I care? Who really knows what happens after you die? What matters to me is my life right now? Why is my life the state that it’s in right now and what does God think about that? Why isn’t he doing anything about it? He just wants to be worshiped?”

My heart was sad to hear about their life situation, and worse that they thought God didn’t care. I couldn’t just say,

“But God does care!”

because then what about their life, their current real struggles. I didn’t have an answer to that. So I just sat there, wondering too,

“how do we know that God cares about us, right now, our lives?” 

Do you ever wonder that? If God cares about you? If God cares about your specific situation? 

Thomas Merton in his book Contemplation in a World of Action, addresses the concerns of spiritual contemplation versus participation in the world. He critiqued the Catholic church for

“giving up on the world and retreating into the abstract” (Odell)

He says,

““Is it enough to wall the monk off in a little contemplative enclave and there allow him to ignore the problems and crises of the world, should he forget the way other men have struggle for a living and simply let his existence be justified by the fact that punctually recites the hours in choir, attend conventual Mass, strives for interior perfection and makes an honest effort to “live a life of prayer”?””

Merton’s legacy lies in a turning point for him, a turning from traditional monk endeavors, from asceticism to a holy active participation and integration in the world. Apparently this happened in Kentucky, there lays a plaque that marks this,

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”” 

 

This thinking goes against some Christian teachings I’ve heard. We’re only visitors here. This is not our home. Our real home is heaven, where God has prepared a palace for us. In fact, if we’re last here, we’ll be first there. It has pitted people against themselves, only caring about the spiritual realm rather than the place where “God themself became incarnate”. I think that’s compelling. If it was all spiritual, why did Jesus ACTUALLY come to earth, at a specific time and place. Couldn’t things just be fixed or compelled through some kind of magical powers. Why did Jesus care about the social structure of the day and spoke out against it? Why did Jesus embody a body at all? Why did Jesus literally heal people instead of telling them their pain will be no more in heaven when they die? I believe that a God that decided to not just wave their hands high up in the sky but decides to come, join, live in this world is a God that deeply deeply cares for this material world. This physical world. One who cares about the “sorrows and stupidities of the human condition”. 

The warning, “Behold, the kingdom of God is coming” isn’t, wasn’t what we think it means. You see things get lost in translation. Some languages have a much more nuance to things sometimes, that can be captured through a wide varied way of conjugating a verb. I experience this as an English as a Second Language speaker, I know, you probably think, wow her English is really good, and yes I worked hard to learn English because English is really hard. Learning a new language is really difficult because it’s not just speech, it’s ideas, it’s movement, it’s concept you are trying to understand.

For example in Korean, there are many ways to saying, “She’s coming over. You could say, “she’s on her way.” or “She’s about to come” or “She was about to come” which, you know the difference between the two sentences when the only difference is two letters. Or “She was coming” and then it connotes that maybe something else happened. 

When this text was translated,

“the Kingdom of God is within you.”

Turns out there are many different ways to translate this. Listen to variations. 

One could say, “Within you, within your hearts.” Or “Among you, in your midst.” Which is a HUGE difference because one is personal and individual, whereas the latter is PLURAL and COMMUNAL. And even not pinpoint-able but in the movement within you. Like the Kingdom of God is not here(person) or here (person) but here (the in-between them two). 

I have an old critical commentary of the Bible that my dad bought from a book dealer in Korea when he was in seminary. Its first print dates 1901. And it says that it wouldn’t have made sense for Jesus to say that it’s in your heart, because he was talking to the Pharisees, which he was always making the point that they were not getting the point.

Cyril of Alexandria, a writer from the 4th century, makes it mean,

“lies in your power to appropriate it.” 

The kingdom of God lies in your power to appropriate it. REALLY? N.T. Wright puts it similarly,

“The phrase (in your midst) is more active. It doesn’t just tell you where the kingdom is; it tells you that you’ve got to do something about it. It is ‘within your grasp’; it is confronting you with a decision…”

My seminary professor said, “the Kingdom of God is coming” is more like,

“The kingdom of God is right in front of your nose.”

And my translation would be,

“The kingdom of God is about to be all up in your face. What are you gonna do about it?” 

The kingdom of heaven is not up there, or after we die. The kingdom of heaven is right here and the question isn’t where it is but what are you going to do about it? 

The end of the film, My Octopus Teacher says this, and I’m not spoiling it for you, because it’s impossible for me to spoil the visual magnificence of the film by quoting it, but he closes by saying,

“What she taught me was to feel… that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.”

This has implications not only to the social political problems of the day, but also for us these days to our environment, which I don’t have time to get into now. But the spirit of God, the reign of God includes you, your body, our earth, your problems, the octopus, the war, and everything in-between, all in our midst. How could that be? I don’t know. But that seems to be the invitation here, The kingdom of God lies in your power to appropriate it. Is that too close for comfort? Is that too much power in our hands instead of God or Jesus? That’s what Jesus seems to be saying…

I’ll leave you with another quote from Jesus, from John 14:12. He says,

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

THEY WILL DO EVEN GREATER THINGS THAN THESE. You will do even greater things than Jesus! Do you believe that? I don’t know. Let’s pray about it. I don’t know, that’s the end of my talk. Let’s pray. 

God how can it be. What are humans that you are mindful of them? Human beings that you care for them? You have given us your spirit to be with us, and have charged us with your call. Help us to see and listen, and participate in the great wave of your power blowing over the waters of chaos. Oh Spirit, compel us to realize that we are co-creators, conduits of your kingdom here and now, on earth as we imagine it in “heaven”, may it be, let us be that. WE pray in the strong name of Jesus Christ Amen. 

The Power of Christ. Strength in Weakness.

Good morning. My name is Lydia Shiu, one of the pastors here at Reservoir Church and I’m going to share some words with you for the next 20 minutes or so about how God relates to us when we are feeling weak. 

But first, I want to take a moment to invite ourselves to the here and now and give you a chance to bring yourself fully to this moment. Maybe close your eyes if you’d like, take a few deep breaths.

How are you landing here today? What are you bringing in here with you to this moment? 

Now imagine walking up to a bookcase. Feel free to place some things on the shelves, maybe worries you have, to do lists, relationships or conflict to resolve, for now, whatever you can let go, place it in the empty bookshelf to give yourself the space to be present to now. 

Let me pray for us. 

Holy and Loving God, who is the source of all things, creator of all things, the beginning and the end. We have come into this space today, I think for a reason. Maybe for an encouragement. Maybe for some light to be shined on to some messy things going on in our lives. Maybe for refreshment. Or maybe we’re not sure what or how we’re doing. But however we find ourselves this morning, you know us, you know where each of us are in our hearts. I pray that you will meet us, by the power of your Holy Spirit that gently and firmly holds us exactly how we need to be held today. Would you meet us here and reveal to us the power of your love. That no matter what we may be going through, that you see us and you know us and move toward us with grace and compassion. We pray in Jesus name, Amen. 

Our Scripture reading today comes from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. This is Paul writing about a thorn on his side, in the midst of his suffering, what Jesus said to him. 

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What do you think of when you think of power? Power to do good. Power to do bad. 

I can’t help but wonder, on this Fourth of July weekend celebrating the Independence Day of the United States of America, how much powerless America once was, as a mere  colony of the British gaining independence, and how that young and scrappy country over the centuries have come to annihilate whole people groups that were natives to the land of North America, enslaved various large people groups from Africa, and some South America, and Asia, and wielded military, political, and social power around the globe in various form to influence for both good and bad in many situations throughout the years. 

And so power can be a tricky thing to define. 

It’s like money. Another one many of us have a complicated relationships with, maybe. I’ve heard a Christian say, “You know, it’s like the Bible says, ‘money is the root of all evil’.” To which I didn’t want to come off annoying as a pastor to correct inaccurate Bible quoting and did not respond with, “Actually it says the “LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” Money and power, often so misunderstood. And so how are we to understand this text about power and weakness? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not a dichotomy, one or the other. It’s an oxymoron, seemingly contradictory but perhaps quite true. 

I love these two verses because it’s so hard to understand. It doesn’t make any sense and yet it makes all the sense. 

You see, I have this question that’s been nagging at me. It knocks and knocks as I scroll through stories of politics under the disguise of Christian values, that’s the same religion as mine, enacting laws that oppress women, known to impact more women of color and more women without financial means. It raps harder and harder as I read any history books on the Christian power that have been at the center of colonialism, erasure of indigenous people, slavery and conversion of nations, mass killings of Jews–This is what I struggle with about my own faith, a faith that has given me such hope and life at most difficult times in my life. But my religion, this question NAGS at me when I pray, when I read the Bible, when I think about God and my world. How do I reconcile with the religion that has been the center of power for oppression, violence, and abuse?

How do we reconcile with the religion that has been the center of power for oppression, violence, and abuse?

How do I make sense of this when I have seen people, powerful people, use “Christ’s Power” to further insult people, keep people weak, persecute the LGBTQIA community, lock people into poverty and the criminal injustice system, instead of liberating them and raising them up, and loving them and embracing them, including them at the table? 

It doesn’t add up to this 2nd Corinthians chapters 10 verse 9-10. 

I don’t see weakness, and gentleness, and mercy, and grace under the banner of Christianity in America today. I see gun clenched hands that insist, “don’t take away my right and my power to kill if I need to at any time.” 

And I’m sorry but it does not make me feel good to see the sweet face of Jesus, bulked up in muscles and wrapped up in guns and the American flag, because that name Jesus is so sweet and tender to me. The Jesus I know?

Jesus came for the sick

Luke 5:31

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

He said that’s why he came, for the sick. 

Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us that all the parables speak of this, in her book called, “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.” 

She says,

“The parable of the creditor who freely remits the debts of those who cannot pay… Or the gracious goodness of God by stressing that women, even public sinners, can be admitted to the Jesus movement in the conviction that “they will love more”.”

Cause Jesus said in

Luke 7:47

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.

Jesus came for the sick. The debtor. The sinner. 

Yes, listen to the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Luke 15:3-10

3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders

6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Jesus came for the 1 lost one. 

And Jesus goes on to say in The Parable of the Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?

9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’

10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Dr. Fiorenza says this,

“Jesus thus images God as a woman searching for one of her ten coins, as a woman looking for her money that is terribly important to her. In telling the parable of the woman desperately searching for her money, Jesus articulates God’s own concern, a concern that determines Jesus’ own praxis for table community with sinners and outcasts. The parable then challenges the hearer: do you agree with the attitude of God expressed in the woman’s search for her lost “capital”?”

Do you? Are we?… Concerned with power, strength, security, prosperity, of our own, or are we boasting, prioritizing, and centering the stories of those who are weak, insulted, facing hardship, persecutions, difficulties? Where do we put our attention? 

You know what’s really powerful? 

In the book Know My Name by Chanel Miller, a memoir of the Stanford rape victim that happened in 2015 talks about power and the courage of rape victims. 

I couldn’t find the quote because the book was on hold for like 25 weeks on the library app. She was the Emily Doe behind the viral Victim Impact Statement that was viewed 15 million times within five days of its publication in 2016. Years later, she wrote a memoir and in it she said that it doesn’t take anything to scoff. It doesn’t take any energy or effort to unleash mean, snarky, sarcastic comments. It’s easier to do that.  It does take so much strength and courage, lots of patience and will power to withhold one ‘s pain and anger, especially when it’s instigated or when you’re cornered.

Miller talks about the unmitigated sneer and anger of men in the courtrooms versus the withholding of emotions of women victims that’s churning a sea of distress just underneath the witness stand’s surface. And how that courage is often not credited but instead questioned as, “see it didn’t impact her at all.” or “why is she talking about this so many years later” rather than seeing the strength it takes to tell the story of her possibly worst moment at all. 

You know when you’re in an argument, not saying the most hurtful thing is the art of peace that I have not mastered. It takes every ounce of me connecting myself to my breath in and breath out to not react out of fangs of my teeth when someone really hurts me. When something really upsets me, I have to try my hardest to not take it out on the people closest to me because it’s not their fault. It’s easier to take it out on them. It’s harder to not react. 

Do you think God was weak to let Jesus die? You think Jesus let them beat him and hang him on the cross because he was a coward? No, many of us who have been won by the love of Christ know the power of the cross already. God was able to do that because of God’s power of love. I think God’s power of love led Jesus to a place of aligning himself with utter vulnerability, one who is pushed out by the people, tried as a criminal by the state, and executed publicly. 

Social researcher, Brene Brown has taught us about the power of vulnerability, she says,

“Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.”

She also said,

Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Isn’t it weird? How it works? That to experience difficulties, and to be weak, is when actually we are strong? Paradox is such a funny concept! 

It’s like when you’re white knuckling through life, you’re actually trying too hard to be in control that your body is stiff and you’re just working so hard and trying to get everything in order only to find yourself in the middle of 10,000 plates spinning, and they’re all about to fall apart. Whereas if only, you had taken the time, slowed down to take deep breaths, being mindful of what’s really important and what’s really happening, that the one plate you spin is giving you flow in ease in life that you even begin to relax and rest and smile. 

So I’m starting to get to the age where I’m reading articles in The Atlantic titled, The Two Choices That Keep a Midlife Crisis at Bay. The first choice I didn’t really get but the second, the writer Arthur C. Brooks said this:

The second decision: Choose subtraction, not addition. Early in life, success usually comes from addition: more money, more responsibility, more relationships, more possessions. Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better. This explains why studies find that the most common concerns reported by middle-aged adults involve getting everything done in their busy life, their energy level, job complications, and insufficient sleep.”

Subtraction not addition. Another way to put it, maybe more letting go. More surrendering. Not powering up but maybe taking the backseat, slowing down. And with life, sometimes it forces you to take the back seat with setbacks or hardships or health problems. 

Last week I was driving my daughter to gymnastics. Which apparently is watching Jungle Book together on a bouncy mat. Anyways. I was struggling to get out the door, wanting to feed the little brother as much milk as possible, cause he needs to grow, and wanted to do her hair so it doesn’t get in her face when she’s doing her tumble on the bar, wanting to make sure she had the right outfit so she’s not the only one in a big tshirt and pajama pants when all the other girls had rainbow color leotards. I buckled my seatbelts and pulled out of the driveway and may or may not have breathed out a quiet curse word as I saw my eta on the gps. 

I was on that one street in Belmont, you know the one right at the bridge, after all the shops, omg I hate that intersection. It has no stop signs, no lights, and people are coming from all different directions and turning into the street. 8:30am. Rush hour. We’re bumper to bumper, all inching forward, and I’m gonna turn left at the next street, and I see that that lane, it’s wide open. I’m so swift, I see it, no one else sees it, everyone else is just stuck right here in this lane, and I’m like I’m going for it. I change lanes and I’m free and BAM the car in front of me thought the same thing right after me and hit me. 

We were okay. Just a little side swipe. I ended up being 30 minutes late instead of five. Poor girl Sophia was crying going, “when are we going to gymnastics?” 

Setback. I was so humbled. I thought I was a super mom, trying to get everything and rush. Instead I was a mess. It would’ve been better if I was just a little less in a rush, going a little slower, and not white knuckling my steering wheel the whole drive. 

How can we turn this *white knuckling* into this *open hands* or this *hands on heart*. That Christ’s power may REST, it says REST, not rise up and broadcasted , but Christ’s power may rest on us. Let’s not man up. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s not be cool, let’s be warm. Let’s not be super moms but late to gymnastics mom driving slowly. Let’s let Christ’s power rest on all of our limitations, shortcomings, struggles, difficulties. Because God’s grace is sufficient for us. God’s grace is enough for you, yes, even you. Will you let God pour into your empty cup and overflow their abundant gracious merciful love? Especially when you’re weak, God will meet you there, and make you strong. For when I am weak. I am strong. For when I am weak. I am strong. May that be true for us my friends, may you be strengthened in your weakness. 

Let me pray for us. 

God, author of our lives. As we stumble through our chapters, would you remind us of the big throughline that runs through it all. Your love. Your grace. Whether in the heights of our career, place in life, love life, influence in community or whatever, or in the depths of our own addiction, struggling in depression and loneliness, battling through a difficult marriage, watching our parents or children in pain of their own lives, whatever may befall, God will you humble us and lifts us up? Will you comfort us and give us strength? We’re such beautiful messes, but through your power, make us perfect. Really? Yeah make us perfect, we ask you this in your precious and holy name, who was crucified and resurrected, Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Love Is…a Confession

Genesis 3:7-21

7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock

    and all wild animals!

You will crawl on your belly

    and you will eat dust

    all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity

    between you and the woman,

    and between your offspring[a] and hers;

he will crush[b] your head,

    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman God said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

    with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam God said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    through painful toil you will eat food from it

    all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

    and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow

    you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

    since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

    and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

 

I sometimes really don’t like the subtitles they put on top of the different sections of the Bible chapters. This one I read just now, some have it titled, “The Fall” or “The First Sin and Its Punishment,” The editors of the Bible are presenting their understanding and theology, or the moral of the story to the reader. Its insistence and presumed authority doesn’t sit well with me, but then again I feel like that with most power and authority exercised this way. 

It’s like when my girl is playing. The other night she put on a variety of things on herself as a costume, a karate belt over one shoulder, my scarf on the other, a cape, one of my husband’s slippers on her leg and the other on her wrist. She twirled and said it was a show. And we sat and clapped saying, what a wonderful show! And I said, Jaga (that’s what I call her) is princess, because that’s what she’s been into, and she said, no! This is a “Jaga wears a weird costume show.” I said okay, Jaga wears a weird costume show wow! She handed me a piece of paper, and I said, oh is this the show notes? And she said, No! It’s a bonus card. Oh okay, thank you for the bonus card.

She hates it when you don’t listen to her directions when we’re playing. And when you listen, you find out what’s important to her. I pay attention to what and how she names, the animal, the activity, to find out how she understands the world. And honestly, it’s usually much more rich, beautiful, and fascinating than my cliches and norms. 

Our Kids Church curriculum uses a method called Godly Play, which names stories from the Bible that’s not only easier to understand for children but also in ways that are theologically appropriate. Godly Play names this Genesis 3 story as not the Fall, but “The Falling Apart: The falling apart and coming back together in a new way.” Now isn’t that a better title than “The First Sin and its Punishment?” I think so!

As a pastor, one of my jobs is translating things into today’s context, for our day to day lives. And the language sin and punishment was one way to explain and capture this relationship we have with God, that may have worked, and even worked well at one time, but I would say for me, today, it needs reworking. The title “The Fall,” this concept of things being right, and then when wronged, you fall from the graces, is trying to explain what’s happening. But what if, what if it wasn’t so hierarchical, where God is here, and you are supposed to be here, and when you sin you fall. What if, like the Godly Play title, it’s less about hierarchy and what’s right and wrong, but about relationship, the element of estrangement and turning away, the falling apart of love, and that it can be put back together in a new way. 

Today I want to talk about this, how to come back together in a new way. We’re in the series of talking about Love is…, and I titled it Love is a Confession. And I’m purposely using the “old” language, confession to try for us to go deeper into the word, get through some of the ways it has been used to coerce or control, and redefine it to find the truth of what it was trying to get at–it was never about just coming clean, but coming back. You don’t have to be clean, you just have to come back in a new way.

Understanding God through sin and confession has often been this way: you sin, you confess, and then you’re forgiven and right with God. There’s something about the act of confession that is true, but over the years, it became a ritual, and then a rule, and then just a thing you had to do. 

I think about the catholic tradition. I don’t know much except from movies and things, where you go into a little box and the priest listens from the other side and absolves you of your sin. And the concept of penance, which feels definitely archaic and foreign, even strange, that you should do something because of your guilt or shame. And at the same time, the process of moving from something wrong to something right, does seem like there needs to be some way to make it up. 

During the Reformation, the 16th century when some folks were trying to reform the catholic church, some of these traditions shifted to align with the ever progressing theology of the times. The sacrament of penance was done away with but there still needed to be some way that people could practice getting honest and real with God. So they came up with the corporate confession of sin, changing the “I confess” to “we confess.” And the underlying theology behind it was, not that you must confess in order to receive forgiveness but it became part of the liturgy, the work of the people, a kind of storytelling through declaration in worship. And this is where we got it right. [picture] Jesus is so lucky to have us.

You don’t come to receive worship, you exercise worship. You are doing the work. You are proclaiming and telling the story together. So an act in worship, like a prayer of confession, is less an act of transaction but a declaration, to say we confess boldly and safely because God’s grace and mercy is enough and abundant. By confessing our sins, we confess that God is safe, loving, and compassionate. 

Because if it is not safe, you should not confess. 

A while ago a person emailed me and the other pastors a confession. I’ve gotten their permission to share. Here’s what it said:

I am asking that you continue to keep me in your prayers as I try and gain control over my need to smoke marijuana as well as binge eating. I’ve turned to these unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope with my fears and anxiety.  

Although I know that God is with me during the good and bad times… I also found comfort with these unhealthy behaviors. It’s been my dirty little secret that I felt too embarrassed to talk about or ask for prayer. In order for me to continue this path of emotional and physical healing, it’s time to address these issues. 

God has been nudging my soul and telling me that it’s time to break away from these behaviors and it’s okay to talk about it to others. During this season of Advent I’ve been praying for full liberation from the things that are holding me back from finding my inner peace. This past Tuesday, I made a promise to myself that I was no longer going to smoke marijuana or binge eat. I’ve had an eating disorder since I was a little girl. In the past I have seeked help for this but when we went on lockdown last year, my eating disorder came back. 

Today was my second day of not smoking… I was really naive in thinking because I am a light smoker that my body would not crave it if I stopped… Well I was wrong. Today was really rough but I refuse to continue to allow this to have control over me. I am and will overcome this need to turn to marijuana. Not smoking has also helped with wanting to binge eat. I know that I can do this… It’s not going to be easy but it must be done! I can honestly say being back at Reservoir Church has definitely helped in SO many ways. So thank you for all your prayers as I continue this path of finding inner peace and a closer connection with God.

It was a big thing for this person to share. When you feel like you have a secret, it feels like that. And really, we humans, all the ways we lie, cheat, steal, gloat in pride, manipulate and so on. And all that we do to cover it because we feel bad about it only makes it worse sometimes. In fact, I would go as far as to say, often it’s not even the act itself that eats us, but the secrecy and the shame from the act.

That’s why I wanted to share Genesis 3 with you today, despite the gender problematic  language in the second creation story, as opposed to the first one, which pastor Ivy read from last week, “let us make humankind in our image.” You see, the Bible is okay with diversity, even two opposing accounts of the creation. And that is what we have. Please if you’ve never heard about this, it makes a world of difference to our faith to know this one fact.

We have two creation stories. And the Jewish texts were okay laying them right next to one another. Genesis 1 is the first creation account. And 2-3 is the second creation account. We know this because the stories are two completely different styles. In fact they have two different names for God. The first one called God Elohim, and the second calls it Yahweh, which is why the biblical scholars distinguish the two to be one from the Elohist tradition and Yahwist tradition: They come from two different traditions! 

And it just so happens that the Elohist captures the creation of human beings born out of a community, let us make humankind in our image, God created them, male and female. Whereas in the Yahwist tradition, man is created first and then the whole story about the rib and Eve, AND it includes this sin and fall story. 

Honestly I think the second creation story honestly is just someone, a man, trying to explain the reason behind patriarchy with things like, God talked to the man first, and how all this came about because he listened to his wife, which he shouldn’t have, which is why after the fall her desire will be for her husband, and he will rule over her. Yes, I agree with Yahwists that this is a result of a broken world and that there is a way toward renewed relationship that is sewn back in a new way. There’s more I can and want to say but I’m running out of time. 

I picked text because I have a different point than we should confess. This text doesn’t even have an apology or a confession. Look at the man and the woman, they both shift blame and make excuses. Can you relate? 

But look at what God is doing. Always look at that, in any Bible story, what is God doing? The first thing God does here is ask,

“Where are you?” 

God says,

“Where are you?” 

God is looking for you. And the things that follow, they can be seen as punishment,  but it has also served as stories that explain how things came to be like why snakes don’t have legs. But after that part, how does the story end? God elevates the man-made fig leaves to garments of skin and clothed them.

God looks for you and covers you. 

Where are you?

What have you done? 

There might be some consequences but more importantly, come here, put this on. Let me cover you. Let me protect you. 

This is the work of confession. Confession is a response to God’s love, not a prerequisite. It’s a proclamation of a God that loves you, cares for you, looks for you, wants to bring you back to make things new, and sews us back together with Godself. This is our confession, not what we have done wrong but who God is regardless. Our Confession is actually, not sin, but Love. 

Let me pray for us. 

God of Love who calls us back again and again. Call us back even now, even if we were to say the things that we’re most ashamed of right now, you lift up our chins with your loving hand and say, welcome home. Lead us back to you, no matter where we’ve been, that is what we confess God… Here I am. Deliver us, back to you we pray. Amen. 

Love is…Mussing Up Someone’s Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I thought, is this love? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 4:16 says that God is love.

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

And it goes on to say in

verse 19 We love because God first loved us.

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

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

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

Chapter 4 starts with,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me pray for us. 

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

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

So Like, How Do You Pray?

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

Good Morning and Happy New Year. I’m pastor Lydia, my pronouns are she/they. I’m going to talk about prayer today. Let me read our Bible text to engage in this conversation and pray for us to start. 

Matthew 6:9-15

9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

10 your kingdom come,

your will be done,

    on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts,

    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]

    but deliver us from the evil one.[b]’

Let me pray for us. 

God we humbly come into this space of worship. Some of us longing and waiting for you to show up. Some of us with great hopes and expectations for the new year. Some of us still in the middle of struggles, difficulties, hardships battling addiction, sickness, or trying to take care of loved ones in need. Wherever we are this morning, would you open up the clouds and shine through, that no one could deny the love that you have poured out to us today, lift us up with your word we pray. Amen. 

The first day I started working at Reservoir Church, I came into the office, not knowing exactly what to expect. I had come here after many emails, phone calls, video calls, and a weekend visit, but that was it. I moved from California with my husband to Boston for this job to be a pastor at this church, without knowing a lot. I remember meeting Leah and Christine who worked at the office across from my office, an organization called Theology of Work that one of our members Will Messenger leads.

Leah and Christine were really sweet and kind, asking me how my first day was going. I think I probably told them about adjusting to the move, not sure how I’m going to face the Boston winter and things. And right in the middle of the conversation they quickly said, can we pray for you, and without much grandeur or movement, easily and swiftly said, “so Jesus…” and began praying for me. 

Now I come from a Presbyterian background. Which, if you don’t know, it’s one of many Christian denominations, characterized by more formality and order. Literally, Presbyterians have a thing called the Book of Order which is step by step with articles and amendments to how everything should be run.

And prayers among Presbyterians are a little bit more formal too. I mean these are just broad generalizations I’m making of course, but you’d hear more like, Almighty God, or Good and Gracious God, of sorts. And I heard Leah and Christine so easily moving from a casual office hallway conversation into a prayer struck me, and I thought, “huh, they start prayers with ‘So, Jesus…’ here…” 

To this day, I love this about Reservoir Church. How it really is such a diverse place, where people from all streams of faith, traditions, or even no faith tradition, come to this reservoir ;), and there is this ease and humility about it. It’s hard for me to describe because it’s like a culture thing, but I think it matters even to how we pray. 

Culture is an environment that people are in. And just as a physical environment would determine how you behave and act (like if you were in a museum or a library, or if you were in a playground or a forest, or if you were in a pool or the beach), culture sets the tone for how people behave. 

Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, an organization known for their positive work culture says,

“For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.” 

It made me wonder, what culture do you create for people to have an honest, open, and loving relationship with God and others? 

What would it look like to create a culture of safe environments to explore faith at varying paces? 

Another, when-I-first-started-working-at-Reservoir story. I met a guy here who said, 

“I’m actually an atheist.”

And I was like, “oh!” You know, trying to have that, not too surprised or judgment full of reaction face–I’m cool. I’m cool. And I did ask him, in like the coolest manner possible,

“Huh, that’s interesting. Why do you come to church?”

And he just said,

“I like the stories I hear in the sermons. And I like the people.”

And I thought, “wow, that’s great!” A church where atheists can come. 

And over the years, you have no idea how actually comforting and impactful that’s been. A woman who’s married to someone who doesn’t practice Christianity, that her husband, though isn’t as involved, feels totally cool to come and join anytime. A person with deep love and faith in Jesus, who’s dating someone who’s not Christian doesn’t feel judged and even feels comfortable to ask for couples counseling. 

Or, even someone like me, who is a pastor here, can go through seasons where I can ask, is Christianity even legit? And I do, feel like that sometimes y’all. I have many doubts. Sometimes I don’t know how to pray because it feels like no one is listening or it doesn’t matter whether I pray or not. 

And I come across Bible texts like this and sometimes struggle more rather than be encouraged.

“This is how you should pray.”

And right off the bat it says, our Father. I got a problem with that. Why does God have to be a guy?  Your kingdom come, oh you a king now. High and mighty above us, and what we’re your minions? I mean, in the first few sentences of this very prescriptive prayer, I’m tripping over patriarchy and hierarchy that I already struggle with so much in the world that I experience. 

So yes, it’s hard to know and understand and receive teachings of the Bible sometimes because the Bible was written in its context and we’re getting a glimpse of it, OUT of context. This prayer, Jesus didn’t show it as an example to ME, an Asian-American woman living in 2022. He said it to the Jewish people set in 27AD in the Ancient Near East. 

For them, this was a provocative prayer. Our Father? That was not what you called God. You called God, Lord, Adonai, you couldn’t even utter God’s name, but Jesus called God Abba! You don’t curtsy and kneel to this God, you run up and sit and cuddle on their lap! 

It’s like if I were to stand here today and say, This is how you should pray. “Hey Boo~” You’d be like, hm, that’s different. And yes, I don’t have authority like Jesus. But the comparison point here is, Jesus was often saying some really strange and ridiculous things that people didn’t recognize. Usually when Jesus said something, People were like, “what did he say?” “Why is he talking like that?” “Who does he think he is?” And if that’s what you think after you hear me speak, well then I’ve done my job! I’m kidding. 

And kingdom and heaven. He was using their language and spinning it on its head. They were concepts and metaphors that they were familiar with. It was like saying, God’s realm. God’s space. God’s rules, not the rules of the Romans who were ruthless and oppressive, but God’s rules. Or another metaphor that might speak more closely to some of us, God’s household, let God’s loving care and nurture be present here with us now rather than the whatever other powers that seemingly mattered the most. No, it’s not who we pay our taxes to that controls our lives, but the One who loves us and cares for us, there is a loving power far greater than rulers. 

And heaven, heaven was a particular concept that they had, that’s different from what we know about our world and universe today. At the time the biblical cosmology consisted of understanding of the world called firmament, a dome like structure that was made up of upper and lower portions; heaven and earth.

So this prayer, actually, doesn’t work for us at all knowing what we know about our galaxy, except in the metaphorical way. Let your love press into our love. Let your body infuse into our bodies. Let your universe expand into our way of doing things. 

Because what else do we have beside metaphors to talk about God with? 

And if you say anything about God and claim it not as a metaphor but an objective truth, then you are a liar. 

But what is a metaphor? Is it less true because it’s a metaphor? Sometimes metaphors, stories get at more truth captured in such a way that I could never express in literal ways. Like literature. Haven’t you ever read fiction that made you go, oh yes! They put it better than I could’ve said about exactly what I’ve felt and experienced in this world! 

You know what I think about often when I think about prayer? It’s from a totally random place but I don’t know, it like matters to me. Okay, bear with me. There’s this book series, actually some Christians don’t really like them, by Dan Brown. You might’ve heard of the movie Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks. Hey I liked the books, like thrilling and adventurous. I think it was in one of the series, called The Lost Symbol.

It talked about noetic science, which apparently is a real area of study, which is, “the study of subjective experience, and to ways that consciousness may influence the physical world.” So the book had this noetic science lab, it had to be enclosed within a huge empty space because it needed to be free from all influences of the external world. And I thought, that’s kind of like prayer, influences of our hearts and thoughts onto a real material world. 

Or like the movie Inception. I love this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio, such a great actor. But the premise that one word, one thought planted in your mind, in your deep deep sleep, is more powerful than any other influence. I mean that’s how marketing works for me, and yes I am very impressionable. One time Pastor Steve talked about eating McDonald’s in a sermon, and later that week I had to go to McDonald’s! Not sponsored. 

Now all of these are silly, but also kind of true you know? Our words matter. Our thoughts matter. Our feelings matter. What we say to children matters. I’ve even seen different kinds of music played to water as it’s becoming ice, making different kinds of patterns. I mean of course it does, each snowflake is different, as I am reminded from a kid’s show called Daniel Tiger these days. I mean, I learned that before, but really isn’t that amazing, that each snowflake is different? That music affects water crystallization? 

I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But have you heard about the Black Hole? Like what is that? It just sucks everything from matter, sound, and light into, what?!

There’s so much we don’t know. About our world, religion, and ourselves. I don’t even know myself sometimes. When someone really asks you, “how are you?” It’s like, um…

I’ve been so challegened and fascinated by the ministry approaches of our Kids Church pastors Dan and Angel. And the way they approach a child’s faith journey, it made me wonder, isn’t that what we’re all doing. Dan was talking about at a base level, what are we doing with the kids? What are we teaching them? And he said,

“It’s like this, at very young: it’s God loves you. It’s nice to be around other people. As they get older: sometimes it feels like God doesn’t love me, what does that mean.”

And I thought, isn’t that what we’re doing with adults? 

Whether you’ve been a Christian for a long time, or you’re exploring faith, or maybe you were but have left the church a while and not sure how to re engage, here’s what I want us to hear. God loves you. It’s nice to be around other people. 

But then (and I personally spent some time with family over the holidays) and yes it was nice to be around them for a bit …and then it was like, ugh, not so nice to be around them at some point. As time goes on, sometimes it feels like God doesn’t love me, or my family or other people don’t love me, what does that mean? What do we do with that? There is no answer, only the journey. 

There is no answer to how to pray. Only the humble journey of asking questions. That is the faith journey. And church is us trying to do that together. 

Christianity is not a formula, it’s a story to be invited into.

Prayer is not a formula.

It was never meant to be a formula.

More as a prompt, an example. A metaphor to be unpacked and entered into. 

So I’ve said a few things about prayer today, but I really honestly don’t know how it works. I can’t convince you that it works, but just to say, it’s like going out for a walk. I don’t know what it does, but sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not, but it does do something for me. 

So I wanted to give us a chance to bring it back to the basics. It’s a bit elementary and I meant it that way, because I do think that at the end of the day, a childlike faith, a childlike prayer is the best one. 

I’m going to pass out a worksheet for prayer. If this is too cheesy for you, no worries, you don’t have to do it. You can just use the time to just sit and think, or be silent, be present to yourself. But I purposely made it kind of child-like. To bring us to the basics. 

How to Pray: A Guide

Prayer can look many different ways.

Sometimes words. Sometimes not.

Here’s a guide you can use with some words.

Let me give you some time to give prayer a try. 

How do you pray? Pray like a child. 

I’ll give us a few minutes and wrap us up with a prayer. 

Holy and Loving God, give us the humility to be okay not knowing everything. But just walk with us, as we walk with you in prayer. Sometimes stumbling in words, sometimes mumbling in our steps, guide us and be with us we pray, that’s all we ask for and really that’s all you ask of us, to know that you are with us. May we see and know that you are here, right here, talking with us, all the time.

Amen.

 

Waiting For The Heart

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

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, click HERE.

John 14:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He titled it the Hopeful Tree. 

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you believe?

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

Who is God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll end with this illustration. 

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

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