What Does Love Look Like?

A few weeks ago our executive pastor Trecia and I had a meeting with someone who was helping us with some church business. It was a pretty good meeting, but the most interesting part happened at the end. I asked him:

if you were us, do you think what you’ve been sharing with us is good news or bad news? 

And he said

I think it’s good news,

and he told me why. And he said,

and you know in life, the way things go can be really unpredictable, but God always helps.

And he said:

can I tell you a funny story?

And I said:

please, do.

And he said:

right before our meeting, I was in my car texting someone.

See, yesterday, someone tried to scam my business and take a lot of money from us. And I don’t know his name or where he lives, but I had a cell phone number he had texted from, so I decided to text him back. So I texted him, and I wrote: God’s going to judge you for what you’re doing. So you should change your ways and ask God for mercy now, while you still can. 

And as I was listening, I thought a lot of things at once. I thought: I don’t know if I’ve ever known someone who texts back to strangers trying to steal his money. And I also wonder what it’s like to write a text like that: God’s going to judge you. Or what it’s like to get a text like that either.

But the thing was – the guy wrote back. He wrote something like: I actually feel horrible about what I’m doing. How do I turn my life around? Or something like that. And so my business acquaintance tells me that they’ve been texting back and forth a bit, and he’s shared a story about Jesus, and how merciful he is to people who ask for God’s help in making things new in their life. 

And honestly, my first thought was like: wow, this guy’s intense.

But my second thought was like: I like this guy’s vibe. 

I have no idea if what he’s doing is smart. Like texting back and forth with someone who’d tried to scam him instead of just blocking his number. No idea. And I’m not giving you advice to do stuff like this either.

But I was like: I like that when confronted with a human being behaving badly, this guy did what he needed to protect himself.

  • But he also didn’t get overtaken by worry or anger, he sort of wondered: what does love look like?
  • Like what’s my part to squeeze the best out of this situation?

To see if a junky situation can turn God’s way, can turn into a great story, can turn for the good. And he’s giving it a shot.

I think that’s cool, this weird thing this guy is doing and the question I find underneath it, which I think is like the very best question we can keep asking in our lives, and especially in bad times, or just weird times. What does love look like? 

I’m giving sermons here and there this summer from the fifth book of the Bible’s New Testaments, the memoirs of the early church called the Acts of the Apostles. And here’s one of these weird times, bad times, where someone wonders what does love look like? And a cool story ensues.

Acts 8:1-5, 26-40 (Common English Bible)

At that time, the church in Jerusalem began to be subjected to vicious harassment. Everyone except the apostles was scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.

2 Some pious men buried Stephen and deeply grieved over him.

3 Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.

4 Those who had been scattered moved on, preaching the good news along the way.

5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and began to preach Christ to them. 

The phrases that stick out to me here are “vicious harassment” and “good news.” Vicious harassment and good news. 

Acts just told the first story of a martyr, someone killed for his faith. It’s my namesake, Stephen. A big meanie of a control freak named Saul and his associates are beating people up, throwing them into prison, and in one case at least, killing them. Vicious harassment. 

No one I know and love has been killed for doing good, but I’ve seen vicious harassment first hand. I’ve had people turn on me and harass me when I thought I was doing the right thing, but it made them uncomfortable.

I’ve been a school teacher and school principal too, so I’ve seen kids get bullied many times. I’ve seen some sad person who’s just losing at life try to feel powerful again by saying mean things about someone else, trying to make them feel horrible, so they won’t feel so bad themselves.

It’s horrible, when we’re harassed. It’s not too great really when bad things of any kind happen to us. 

And we ask a lot of questions when bad things happen. 

  • We might ask questions like: why me? Why did this have to happen?
  • And questions like: why is this so hard? And: when will it get better?
  • And sometimes we might ask questions like: “How will I protect myself?”

My friend who had the scammer going after his company’s business was asking that question. Or we might ask a similar question: “Who’s looking out for me?”

I think pretty much everyone who gets bullied asks that question.

  • Who’s going to stick up for me?
  • Or stick up with me?
  • Who’s looking out for me?

And I want to say:

those are all good questions. They’re all questions we need to ask. 

And the main character in Acts probably asked those questions too. The main character we are going to meet is named Philip. Philip was good friends with Stephen, the man who was killed. They worked together. And Philip was alive, but he was also one of those people being harassed in Jerusalem. People from his own town, his own faith, his own community, hated what he stood for, and they were trying to make his life miserable.

And I’m sure he might have asked questions like:

  • why me?
  • And why is this so hard?
  • And can I do anything to protect myself?
  • And who’s going to stick up for me?

But as Acts tells the story of Philip, he seems to think maybe God is asking a different set of questions. Maybe God is asking:

what good can we squeeze out of these hard times? What can we do now? 

And another question that’s related to that one is that maybe God is asking:

what does love look like here?

See, this is one of the big lessons of the book of Acts. That people are going to do their thing, they’re going to do good things and bad things and wise things and plain stupid foolish things. But no matter what we do, the Spirit of God will not stop. 

God doesn’t wait.

Bad is bad. After all, they talk about people dying and about prison here. Prison in Acts, by the way, is always bad. Prison in Acts is a technology of control and violence. A sermon for another day. 

But God doesn’t wait. God won’t stop working bad for good.

And Phillip has learned this, so he starts asking those same questions God asks:

What am I here for now? And: what does love look like?

And a really great story ensues. Let’s read a little more from Acts.

I think I’m going to read the story in little bits and pieces and keep talking about it, OK? Here we go.

26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.)

27 So he did. 

What does love look like?

Love has geography.

Someone tells Philip he should go to Gaza. Take the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

And Philip thinks this someone is a messenger from God. Because that’s what the word angel means – a messenger. 

Why that particular road? Why go out into the desert? Most of us don’t choose desert roads.

Philip probably has no idea why. But he trusts his gut, he feels that this is God’s idea, so he goes. Because love narrows our options. 

There’s no such thing as loving in general. We only love particular people, particular places, particular things. You can’t say: I love dogs, but then when a particular dog comes along, you kick it or tease it or whatever. No matter what you think about dogs in your head, if you treat a particular dog that way, you don’t love that dog. 

Love takes commitment. Love has geography. Commit to no one and nothing and nowhere, and you won’t love.

So Philip says,

I’ll go to that desert road, and see what love looks like there.

Maybe the Spirit of God wanted love to flow from Jerusalem to Gaza. Right now hate and soldiers and missiles and violence are flowing from Jerusalem to Gaza, and maybe God hates that, because there is nothing creative or redemptive or loving about that. And so maybe we need to ask what love looks like on this road today?

For Jesus, we do know that he said his good news was meant to travel way beyond Jerusalem. At the start of Acts, he said to his friends:

bring my good news to Judea and Samaria and to all the ends of the earth.

But it wasn’t until this chapter in Acts, and Philip going to Samaria first and then on to Gaza that this started happening. And Philip only went to those places because he and his friends were getting beat up and put in prison and killed in Jerusalem. 

And again, that was a bad thing. But the Spirit of God doesn’t wait. God wonders.

What good can we squeeze out of bad? What does love look like now? 

And so Philip heads to the desert road. 

Let’s see what happens there. 

Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.)

28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage.

29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”

What does love look like?

Love pays attention. And love shows up.

When Philip had this sense that he needed to go talk to the man getting a ride in a carriage, there were a hundred reasons to not do that. 

This man was a stranger, and lots of the time, we’re taught not to talk to strangers, and a lot of the time, that’s right.

Philip could probably tell that this man was very rich and very important. He wouldn’t want to bother him. And he might be afraid that if he tried to talk to this man, he’d just get ignored or rejected. The carriage probably wouldn’t even stop if he ran over there, and he’d look silly.

This man looked different from Philip too. They were from different countries. Maybe they wouldn’t understand each other. Maybe it would be awkward.

But the Spirit of God thought it would be a great idea for these two people to talk. A great story was going to happen here, if Philip would just pay attention and show up. And it’s good for us, and good for the world that he did. 

Love pays attention. And love shows up. 

Let’s keep going. 

30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 

What does love look like?

Love shows up. And love asks questions. 

Do you understand what you are reading? 

Philip sees a very important man from very far away, and he just happens to be reading one of Jesus’ favorite parts of the Bible. So he asks:

do you understand what you are reading?

A lot of people wouldn’t ask that question. It could sound nosy. It could even sound rude if it came off the wrong way. And maybe it’s not a perfect question, but Philip followed Jesus, who had to be the most curious and attentive person who ever lived. He was always asking people questions. Because questions help people think, and questions show people they are important. And questions invite people to talk. So Philip asks a question.

I grew up in a family that didn’t ask so many questions. But I guess like Philip, I learned from Jesus and from people who were good friends to me, that love asks questions. And that once you get in the habit, it’s not hard to ask questions like:

  • what are you reading?
  • Or what was that like for you?
  • Or would you like to tell me what happened?

The other day I was having lunch with someone I care about very much, and he had just told me something he was embarrassed about and how he had said sorry for what he had done. And the old me would have thought: oh, he’s embarrassed, I’ll just change the subject, just say: that’s OK, and move on. But instead, I asked:

do you mind telling me more about what happened? 

And then he did, a lot more. And I could tell that it helped him to tell the story to someone. And it gave me the chance to tell him I understood and that I knew God understood and that God loved him very much still and wasn’t angry with him and that God would want to help him not end up in a situation like that again and talk about what he was doing to get some help. And I thought: oh, I’m glad I asked that question. 

The Ethiopian man was glad to be asked this question as well about what he was reading. This is what happened next. 

32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
    so he didn’t open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
    Who can tell the story of his descendants
        because his life was taken from the earth?

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?”

35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 

What does love look like?

Love listens.

This might be the most important part of the sermon. Love listens. 

Philip listens carefully as the eunuch, this very important man, reads the Bible and asks his questions about it. He listens so well that he notices that this man is like the person in the story. He’s very important but other people made choices about his life that mean he can never get married and he can never have children, and there was nothing he can say or do about that. 

And Philip listened so well that he realized both the person in the Bible story and the person he’s talking to are like Jesus in this way, and that Philip can tell this man more about Jesus and more about how much God sees and understands and loves him. 

All because love listens. Because God’s been listening to all of us forever. And Phillip listens now. 

I didn’t come into the world as a very good listener. I have this difference in my brain called ADHD that I only learned about as a grown up. And this means different things to different people who have it. But one of the things it means to me is that I can be super focused sometimes, but I can also be impulsive. I can do things really fast without thinking. And one of those things I can do when I am super focused and impulsive is I can interrupt people when they are talking with the thing I want to say. 

And when I do that, I can be kind of embarrassed because I know that interrupting is not good listening. So I have learned to stop and just say sorry quickly when I do that and try not to feel over-bad about myself. But I’ve also learned a few things about being a good listener.

Like it helps to just close your mouth and let the other person take their time after asking a question. 

And it helps to pay attention and use your imagination and your feelings when the other person is talking, so that you’ll have compassion for them, and you’ll want to ask them to tell you more, and want to say things like:

that sounds really interesting, or that sounds really hard. 

And I’ve learned, as I’ve said, that this is mostly what God is doing. Because God pays really close attention to all of us, and God listens really well. God cares about everything because God is everywhere, and God is love. 

Sometimes when I’m in a hard time, just remembering that God is listening to me and God really cares about everything I care about turns around the hard time for me and makes it OK. And sometimes I remember that God is curious, not judgemental and that God is creative, not stuck. And God is hopeful, and God probably has good ideas about what to do next. And that all helps a lot too. It helps me get curious about the best ideas for what’s next, no matter how hard things are. 

Listening is really important, so love listens.

Let’s finish our story. 

36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.

The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?”

38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 

39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.

40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.

What does love look like?

Love gives what it has.

Once in a while, love needs to give really big, like hero big, sacrifice big, epically big. 

But usually not. Usually when we show up and pay attention and ask questions and listen, usually then we can just be ready to be a little bit useful, even if sometimes being useful can be a little unusual. 

The Ethiopian official has been thinking about God for so many years, and learning about Jesus puts everything together, so he is ready to be baptized, to do the thing you do to say: I’m my parents’ child but I’m also God’s adopted kid, and I want to follow Jesus in this life. This man is ready. He even sees the water, all he needs is for Philip to help him out.

Love goes for it in being useful. 

And then sometimes, life moves on, and you need to move on to. Because life is full of change. We can’t go to the same school forever. We can’t have the same job forever. Sometimes we can’t even have the same friends forever. People change, life is always changing. 

My kids are all growing up so, so fast, and they’re ready to start moving away from home and setting up their own lives that I’ll be part of, sometimes a big part of, but not in the same way. And right now I’m getting used to that. My wife Grace and I, we’re getting used to these changes, and sometimes we’re really happy about them, and sometimes really worried, and sometimes really sad, but it’s still happening. And we’re learning like Philip that you don’t stay in the carriage forever. So love lets go too. And love moves forward for hope.

Because in the end love lets go sometimes. Love doesn’t control. Just like God doesn’t control. But love always hopes, love always trusts, and love, my friends, never fails. God is love, and we can keep becoming love too.

Can we pray?

Community Life and the Death of the Nuclear Family

Grace and I are in this weird moment where we’re finishing up our 22-year old run having a nuclear family at home.

Last weekend was our youngest kid John’s high school graduation. And it was a great weekend. We’re so proud of all three of our kids, and this weekend was a great time to be really proud of our youngest. John’s become an extraordinary human while in high school, and he’s off to great things. What a weekend to celebrate with him! It was a good one.

But it was kind of an emotional weekend too, in what’s been an emotional season, as we sort out the big adjustments going on in our family life. I find myself with complicated feelings about the years ahead – excited about my kids’ chances to try new things, excited for all the freedom I’ll have and that Grace and I will have as a couple. But I find myself kind of introspective and even a little bluesy sometimes too – worried for kids’ futures, sad to not be with them as often, and also just feeling like I need to take a breath and sort out what has happened these past 22 years.

Because they’ve been 22 amazing, awesome years I’m so grateful for. And they’ve also been 22 freaking hard, exhausting years too. We’ve rarely known if we’re doing the right thing or doing enough or too much. And sometimes we’ve looked back and been like what felt like the right thing probably wasn’t. Definitely wasn’t. Our kids tell us this sometimes too. Money was tight, every year. Time and resources of all kinds usually felt tight. It was hard. Harder than I think it needed to be.

A few years ago, the conservative columnist David Brooks wrote a whole article about this that got some buzz. He called it, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” He pointed out that most of the world has lived in extended kinship networks of family and friends, where kids weren’t just raised by one or two beleaguered parents but by the community the family was embedded in. And people who didn’t have kids or whose kids were adults mostly didn’t live alone either, but also as part of communities. Communities of care and connection and accountability. 

But America, since the 1950s, has been running this experiment, where society has kind of centered the nuclear family, like the model for adulthood was to have a spouse and 2.something kids and a dog and have all of your most important relational and economic life happening within that small family unit. All along, though, lots of us were living differently – today, only ⅓ of Americans live in nuclear family households. Only a third of us. Yet if we don’t, we might wonder or people might act like we’re missing out on something. And for the third of us that are doing this, it’s not always working out so well. 

So let’s talk about the failure of the nuclear family, and the communities we all need like bigger families, chosen families, church communities. 

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I’ve been rereading the Bible’s stories from the first generation of the history of the church. It’s the book called the Acts of the Apostles. And I’ve been reading it alongside a brilliant contemporary theologian named Willie James Jennings, who’s been helping me see new things in the book of Acts. 

So I’m going to read to you another story from Acts, this one a provocative and troubling one, and we’ll see how it can help us think about the failure of the nuclear family and what can happen in community life.

Acts 4:32-11 (Common English Bible)

32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.

33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.

34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales,

35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

36 Joseph, whom the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (that is, “one who encourages”), was a Levite from Cyprus.

37 He owned a field, sold it, brought the money, and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

So part one of this story is the idealized picture of church going right. Kind of extreme, like a big commune.. Maybe more intense than most of us would be down for, but I do love the phrase

“an abundance of grace was at work among them all”

and the phrase

“no needy people.”

I feel like we could use abundance of grace and no needy people still.

And it ends with this picture of Joseph, who gets the nickname, the Encouraging One – as a picture of part of how community can work so well. People get a lot out because they’re putting a lot in as well. In this case, giving the full profits of a business sale to the community. 

Then the second half of today’s story, which gets creepy in a bunch of ways.

5 However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property.

2 With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

3 Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land?

4 Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!”

5 When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified.

6 Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

7 About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband.

8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

9 He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.”

10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband.

11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.

So this story is awful. It’s kind of shocking, and offensive, and funny all at once. I mean a man gets caught in his deceit and drops dead in the church. What kind of pastor when his spouse shows up three hours later, not knowing what’s happened, is like:

ahem, I have a question for you. What exactly did you sell your home for last week?

Sorry, it’s so horrible, it’s funny to me. 

And some commentators are like: that’s the point. Author of Acts had a nice sense of gallows humor. It was meant to be kind of outrageous. 

Maybe, but it’s a weird passage. What is the point? Scholars mostly avoid the passage, but when they don’t, they do not agree. 

  • What did Ananias and Sapphira do wrong? 
  • Was it the lying? And if so, was it lying to the leaders? Or was it lying to God? 
  • Or was it the withholding? The holding back a bunch of their funds, while claiming to give them all to the community? 

Scholars will point out that there are similar stories in ancient literature. There’s a Greek story told by Herodotus about a guy who lies about money he kept dishonestly and is then deprived by the gods of descendants as a punishment.

And in the Bible, there’s a more ancient story from the book of Joshua about a time of religious reform, where the community is collecting all the plunder that they were supposed to destroy, and this one guy Achan, or Ay-chan, hides a bunch of silver and gold in his tent, withholding it from the collection, and when they find him out, they take him and his kids and all his animals too, and they stone them to death. 

It’s a set up to a horrible dad joke. The guys’ name was Achan, and it’s like, who’s aching now? 

Some people read this story about Peter and Ananais and Sapphira in light of this Achan story from Joshua, and they approve of the connections. They’re like, look Peter did this miracle of catching people sinning and punishing them. And there are people who have read this story as a justification for church discipline or capital punishment. 

I think that’s horrible, by the way. Even if this story is connected to the old one from Joshua, it’s different in that no one lays a hand on Ananias or Sapphira. Whatever the reason for their death, no person does it. Jesus commanded his followers not to hate, and to regulate their anger, let alone never to kill. The way of Jesus is a resurrection community, a community of the celebration of life. The followers of Jesus are not to participate in death-dealing, period.

Other people connect this story to the Achan one in Joshua by saying it’s a story of divine judgment, and maybe. 

 It kind of seems that way at first. In the Achan story, the writer makes it seem like God is happy and chills out after they stone that guy and all his people and animals. But I think the whole Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition, right through Jesus, has corrected that interpretation. We see the excess now, and the mistakes in people’s thinking about God. I mean one, that guy’s kids, his animals, what did they do wrong? Like who stones some guy’s dog or cow to death, because that guy stole some money from God? No matter what you think about God and violence, that is excessive. Leave the cow alone. 

And I think the arc of scripture, the arc of the Jesus movement, and even the arc of history teach us to not ascribe violence of any kind to God. When I was in Palestine and Israel, I had the honor of meeting Palestinian Archbishop Abuna Chacour, a beautiful Christian leader and bold peacemaker. He says: the first thing we know about God is that God does not kill. 

Jesus was a healer, and it was his enemies that conspired to put him to death. People who follow Jesus ought to be bearing crosses now, not building them. 

So I think there are two bad readings of this passage.

Bad reading one is any reading that justifies violence. That tries to scare people by telling them that God or some person is going to strike them down if they don’t stop whatever. That kind of fear is not worthy of God, or the way or the people of Jesus. Perfect love casts out fear, after all, the scriptures tell us. Perfect love casts out fear. So we shouldn’t try to use fear or threats to try to change people.

And bad reading number two, I think, is to use this story, to try to pressure people to give more money to the church. It’s true that churches and most other good things in life only thrive when we put a lot into them. Reservoir is an engine of generosity and good and innovation for the church in the world, but that only works when we all – the people of the community – put resources in together to make that happen. We need Barnabases who will give generously, give big from what they have. 

All true and good, and many of us love giving to this church, but using this passage or any other threats or manipulation to get people to give more money to the church is toxic. Give abundantly, friends. Give to where your heart is. Give to where you see God. Give to where you see good you want to be part of. But don’t get scared or pressured into giving. 

That’s not the way. There’s even a little hint after this passage, where it says people were kind of impressed by this early church. But they were scared of it too. Because when a community’s leaders abuse power, or when a community spends its energy or its voice stoking fear and exerting control, it’s becoming a cult. It’s lost its health, it’s lost its way. 

Violence and coercion, bad readings. So what is a good reading of this passage? 

Well, Willie James Jennings helped me see something I hadn’t seen before. Which is that it’s really intentional in this story that a couple is doing this. 

Couples aren’t mentioned much in Acts, maybe just two times. Families aren’t the center of the story either. They come up a few times, but the early church wasn’t really a “focus on the family” kind of place. People from all types of family and status were getting involved – single, partnered, young, old, rich, poor, slave, free, and together they were forging new forms of family life together. 

But this couple is interesting. They’re kind of walling themselves off from the community, like God’s big dreams for them are this private story they are working out all by themselves. And they’re just going to pay lip service to other people’s dreams. They also break this whole abundance of grace culture by being inauthentic. They’re going to play along in this community, maybe use the community for their status, looking like they were so generous. But their hearts and their dreams and their finances are really going to be solely tied up in what’s happening inside the walls of their little home. 

Willie James Jennings says they have it backwards. He writes that communities of Jesus say to couples and families: you belong to us. We do not belong to you. 

I find that provocative. And maybe that’s what this passage is about, maybe not. It’s a hard passage. I don’t know. But let’s go with this surprising reading a bit, just for today, and connect it with these thoughts a number of us are having with our failing American experiment in obsession with the nuclear family.

  • What communities are we embedded in? Can we lean on, depend upon?
  • And what communities are we making happen? Are we growing, for us and for others? 

When I look back on my family’s 22-year experiment with the nuclear family, I think it’s gone better when this was our story.

The years where our family has most helped create community, those were good years. When our kids were babies and for years after that, we had people in our home every week – little kids, teens, grownups – every week, we hosted community groups in our homes. 

Where else in our world do people who aren’t related regularly eat together, play together, share together, learning one another’s hopes and dreams and joys and heartaches, learning the names and likes of other people’s kids, talking about the big questions in life about God and love, meaning and morals? I guess there are other places this happens, but not a lot. And church groups at their best – we crush this. 

When we pulled back from this, because we were too busy or other things seemed more important, no one struck us dead, but we lost out.

We lost out because we were meant to make community. 

Mostly, though, I think, our kids got this. It was enough a part of our family that they got it. 

At John’s graduation, a school leader I admire told the graduates that his advice is to be useful. When they don’t know what to do – don’t know how to find their path, where to live, what job or relationship is right, one way to find the path is to wherever you are, be useful. And sometimes the places you find yourself being useful kind of become the path. 

I think that’s a good word. And I think our kids have taken that to heart. You hear it in the way they talk, in the aspirations they have, in the way they show up in the world. I’m so proud of them.

The world does not exist for our sake, not entirely at least. We exist for it too. Our lives and our resources are not just meant for ourselves, they are meant to be invested in things and people and communities outside of ourselves. 

We aren’t meant to be hoarders but givers. 

We also aren’t meant to be alone but together, no needy people among us, practicing abundance of grace. 

The nuclear family ideal is killing us here. Like the only people we’re supposed to be in truly interdependent relationship with is our nuclear kin. For those of us in nuclear families, it’s not enough. And for those of us not in nuclear families at least right now, ourselves are not enough either. 

We need each other. 

The drift of American life doesn’t get us here. It’s hard to sustain deeply connected community. For our family, honestly, this has been a pretty mixed bag these past 22 years. But I think, oh, our best moments haven’t been the cut off ones. I think of the neighbors and the family friends that were at John’s graduation party, and I think – I only wish we’d spent more time together. Because I need things from them and them from me that we don’t have alone. And my kids need things from them, and they need things from my kids too. 

Friends, even in church, this is complicated. As church people, or people trying to be in the Way of Jesus, we too are sometimes more connected to our NetFlix and our Instagrams and our privacy and our nuclear families than we are to others. And we can kind of go back and forth, putting into the common good or not.

And I know community in church can give a lot and sometimes it can disappoint too. My friend T.C. Moore just published a whole book about the limits of nuclear family and the kind of communities and relationships we can make in community. It’s called Forged. And even there, he tells stories of some big successes but of some fails too. So I get that. Even as Acts amidst, church isn’t always the ideal. But it’s one of the best places to keep trying. Really one of the best.

So I wonder if this summer might be a great time for some of us, nuclear family or not, to imagine again what connection and contribution to a bigger community might look like? 

  • Who can you eat with this summer, this fall? 
  • Whose kids that aren’t your own can you get to know?
  • How can you include a couple more people in your private world? How can you let yourself be a little more included in others’? 
  • To what community are you going to give yourself in a big way, not withholding?

Our church is going to provide some opportunities for these things in the months to come, but don’t wait for it. Get started.

Brian McLaren has this book out on the doom we feel is facing us – climate change, politics, all kinds of stuff. It’s bad. 

And he writes:

Love may or may not provide a way through to a solution to our predicament, but it will provide a way forward in our predicament, one step into the unknown at a time. Even if we lose hope for a good outcome, we need not lose hope of being good people. 

We don’t know what the future holds – for any of us, let alone for our country, for our species.

And we don’t know if community will have the answers, or if love will be enough of an answer.

But we know that love will be the way forward. We know that we need each other. And here we are, we’re around. Let’s lean in.

The Revolution of the Intimate

Last Monday we hosted the Board meeting for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. And even though important things sometimes happen at Board meetings, Board meetings can be very boring events. It’s practically the same word – board and boring.

But our Monday meeting wasn’t boring at all. One of the people co-leading with me asked me the day of:

where can we buy good cake around here?

And I wondered: why do we need cake? But I suggested a place. And that night she and our third co-leader showed up with cake from a better place than I’d suggested. High quality cake. 

And it turned out the cake was for someone’s wedding anniversary, a 20th wedding anniversary. It’s fun to celebrate anniversaries. Our church had our 25th anniversary last year. This winter Grace and I are going to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary. When we had our 20th anniversary, we took a big trip together far away without our kids for the first time since we’d had them. And while we love our kids, that was fun too. 

But the 20th anniversary we were celebrating on Monday was a special one. One of our Board members, Marcia, was celebrating her 20th anniversary of marriage to her wife Susan. And this anniversary also lines up with the 20th anniversary of same sex weddings being legal in Massachusetts. 

This is not a coincidence, because Marcia and her wife were the very first couple of two men, or in their case two women, to get married that day right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right after the law was changed. So we weren’t just celebrating Marcia’s anniversary, we were celebrating history too. Which was special.

Marcia said thank you and gave a little speech before we ate cake, saying how much it meant to her that we wanted to celebrate with her. And then one of our leaders, a younger queer person who was only a kid when Marcia got married gave a speech too, and said how important what Marcia and her generation did for marriage equality, and how Marcia’s generation has paved the way for her generation to live safer, freer lives with the people they love. And she was tearing up, and Marcia was tearing up, and a lot of us were tearing up, because we were thinking of our queer kids or our queer friends or siblings, or our queer selves, and what it means to us when we can be loved just as we are and have the same rights and freedoms as anyone else.

But then there was one more speech. One of our founders spoke up and said tonight we’re also celebrating the 20th anniversary of our organization surviving. Because when this law was getting changed, there were people on our Board back then that were for this change, and that were against this change. And it was such a big argument, and such a hard argument, that we didn’t know if we’d be able to stay together as GBIO. But we did because we decided to keep loving each other, and to stay in relationship, even when we disagreed about some really important things. And those relationships kept us together, and they changed us too. Not everyone changed their minds, but many people have. And there are people who didn’t understand or agree with Marcia’s marriage before who celebrate it today. 

And there we were – about 20 people – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Black, White, Asian – as young as 23 and as old as 77. Celebrating Marcia’s anniversary, and celebrating LGBTQ rights, and celebrating our friendships and our desire to keep getting to know each other across our differences, keep learning together amidst our differences, and keep acting for a better world together, powered by all the stories and all the gifts we bring to the table with our differences.

What a gift, to learn to not only tolerate or compromise but to understand and love and live and grow together across our differences. 

This is what the theologian Willie James Jennings calls the revolution of the intimate. The revolution of the intimate is what Jennings says a Christian holiday called Pentecost is all about. And while Pentecost was on the Christian calendar last week, and our kids thought about Pentecost last week in kids’ church, we’re just getting to it today. 

I’m excited to talk about Pentecost, and how it’s the revolution of the intimate, and some of what that might mean to you and me. Let’s read the story. It’s from the book of Acts, which stands for the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of what Jesus’ friends did after Jesus died and rose again, and it’s the story of what they discovered God doing among them. This part is from near the beginning, in the second chapter.

Acts 2:1-21 (Common English Bible)

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

2 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. (Joel 2:28-32)

I mentioned that last week our kids talked about this story in kids’ church, so I’ve invited two of our 4th and 5th grade kids to tell us what struck them most about this story this year.

Pentecost was a holiday already before this story. Pentecost was a Greek name for the holiday. Today, Jews call this day for its Hebrew name, Shavuot. It was a spring harvest festival. And it’s also the day Jews remember the gift of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. So it’s the birthday of words, spoken words and written words of God, through the lips and pens of people. The anniversary of the beginning of the Bible.

Pentecost is another beginning. This time it’s the beginning of a more intimate experience of God. Not just words you read or hear, but a communicative presence of God with us and among us that we can feel.

It’s like wind. It’s like fire. 

A lot of the time we read the Bible from the perspective of the main characters, of the heroes. 

So we read the Pentecost story and we think of the wild experience of Jesus’ friends suddenly speaking languages they’ve never learned. We hear the image of something like wind and something like fire, and we think – these not very educated working class fishers and tax collectors from the countryside are so bold and articulate and powerful. 

And for some of us, this is very attractive. 

This story has become a big deal in the parts of Christianity that are called Pentecostal, or sometimes Charismatic. Our church has some background here too.

And in these parts of the Christian church, we like to be able to experience God super-close, super personally, super intimate. And that can be beautiful and special. This has actually been important to my faith. 

But sometimes too we can be kind of hooked on what I call the big dopamine hits of an experience of God. We don’t just want to pray, we want to pray in a language we’ve never learned before because that feels extra special. People call that speaking in tongues. It’s something the Bible only mentions a handful of times, and it doesn’t always seem to mean the same thing there, but this has become a big deal to some Christians, because it seems so powerful, so intimate. 

Same with other kinds of powerful experiences of God doing something for you, or God doing something through you. And if all this is genuine and authentic and helpful and encouraging to other people, and you can stay humble and open about it all, that’s cool. 

But I want to read this passage and this moment of Pentecost from another angle today, a different experience of what the revolution of the intimate looks like, and that’s the experience the people in this story who aren’t named have. The crowd of diaspora exiles who’d traveled back to their ancestral home of Jerusalem for the festival. See when we read the Bible, we’re not always the main characters, so it can help to read the stories from other people’s perspective.

And for these residents of Mesopotamia and Asia and Egypt and Libya and Rome, the Spirit of God is like wind. And like fire. And mostly, it’s like someone speaking to you the good news of God in your heart language, in your mother tongue. 

The crowd we’re told are people who live far away. They are bicultural people, who speak more than one language, have had to learn more than one culture and way of being in the world. 

Many of you know these experiences – of living in America and having people wonder where you are from, or being surprised that you speak English so well when you always have, or of being underestimated because your English is considered accented. But then you travel to where your ancestors are from and you’re told you don’t belong there either, that you’re a foreigner there as well. 

In my wife’s Cantonese Chinese roots, they call you jook sing – a hollow bamboo reed, like you might look Chinese on the outside but on the inside, it’s not all there anymore. You’ve lost part of your culture. Or some say it’s like you’re not connected on either end, not belonging in either culture. 

This is the pain of bicultural people, of diaspora people. The doors and hearts that are closed to the fullness of who you are.

It’s the pain of colonized people – then with Jews under the Romans and in modern history. Willie James Jennings puts it this way. I’m gonna quote him at length here. 

He says,

“Imagine people in many places, in many conquered sites, in many tongues all being told that their languages are secondary, tertiary, and inferior to the supreme languages of the enlightened peoples. Make way for Latin, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and English. These are the languages God speaks. These are the scholarly languages of the transcending intellect and the holy mind. Imagine centuries of submission and internalized hatred of mother tongues and in the quiet spaces of many villages, many homes, women, men, and children practicing these new enlightened languages not by choice but by force. Imagine peoples largely from this new Western world learning native languages not out of love, but as utility for domination. Imagine mastering native languages in order to master people, making oneself their master and making them slaves. Now Imagine Christianity deeply implicated in all this, in many cases riding high on the winds of this linguistic imperialism, a different sounding wind. Christianity was ripe for this tragic collaboration with colonialism because it had learned before the colonial moment egan to separate a language from a people. It had learned to value, cherish, and even love the language of Jewish people found in Scripture – but hate Jewish people.” 

Into this horrible habit we have of cultural and linguistic erasure sweeps Pentecost where the bicultural, diaspora, jook sing crowd hear people unlike them speak the good news of God to them in their mother tongue. 

It’s linguistic reinstatement, it’s cultural validation, it’s a decolonizing of the good news message of Jesus. It’s a revolution of the intimate.

Jennings one more time:

“God speaks people, fluently.”

Let me say that again:

“God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too.” 

This is the revolution of the intimate, this profound knowingness of God for all of who I am, just as I am. I’m part of the story, as my immigrant self, as by Black self, as my descendant of barely literate Scots-New Yorkers self, as my queer self, as whoever I am, just as I am. God knows and speaks to me and loves me as me.

And God calls us all to know and speak to one another in this same curious, knowing, generous, respectful, loving spirit as well. 

This is why that Board meeting of ours held power. It wasn’t just celebrating an anniversary or eating cake, it was the invitation of the Spirit to know and be known fully and deeply just as we are. We may not have heard all of the good news of Jesus or the mighty works of God in our mother tongue, but we had a revolution of the intimate nevertheless, as we were translated and known to one another. 

And that encouraged us to imagine the stories we dream that will be told some day about our justice work. 

These things are connected by the way. The revolution of the intimate – the safety and knowingness of our whole selves, and the awareness that God knows us, that God speaks us. This helps us flourish. 

As the passage says,

Your young will see visions.

    Your elders will dream dreams.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The revolution of the intimate empowers visions and dreams. And the revolution of the intimate saves us. 

We’re near the end of AAPI Awareness month right now, and this month one of the books I’ve read by Asian-American authors was the autobiography of Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee Boggs is someone my wife Grace has been encouraging me to learn about and talk about for years, because she’s this important Asian-American activist whose story so profoundly embodies parts of this revolution of the intimate. 

Grace Lee Boggs grew up in New York City, in the early 1900s, a child of the first waves of Chinese immigrants to American cities over 100 years ago. Her family kind of split apart over time, and she became the one intellectual. She earned a PhD in philosophy way back in 1940, and was interested in radical politics and the transformation of American life to empower the poor and working class.

But her big pivot when she learned about the March on Washington – not the famous one from the 1960s with MLK and John Lewis and all but the one before that, way back in 1941, organized by Philip Randolph, that got the American military desegregated. 

When Grace Lee Boggs learned about the success of that march, she thought: Black Americans have the culture, the religion, the institutions, and the strength to make justice possible in this country. And as an adult child of Chinese immigrants and a PhD in philosophy, she decided to embed herself in the Black freedom struggle. First, she supported and partnered with a Trinidadian radical activist named C. L. R. James. Then later, while living in Detroit, she married a Black union leader named Jimmy Boggs, and together, Grace and Jimmy were instrumental leaders in the Northern Black freedom movement and the beginnings of the Black Power movement as well. 

Grace Lee Boggs lived an incredible life, an incredible story of the revolution of the intimate – two people of two cultures – African-American and Chinese-American, both oppressed and marginalized in this land, largely living apart, amidst mutual misunderstanding and stereotype and mistrust, joined in mutual knowing, mutual respect, and mutual action for the common good. 

These kinds of revolutions of the intimate truly help save us. 

Friends, I wonder about all the ways our world is looking for the revolution of the intimate.

I think about children who are cold to their parents, or even who are estranged from their parents, who need prodigal mothers and prodigal fathers to keep seeing them, keep looking out for them, keep moving toward them, keep loving them.

I think of apologies that could be made, gifts that could be given, love and encouragement that could be articulated. 

I think of communities of great difference – our schools, our city, even our church – where humble, generous knowing and sharing of stories helps us see visions and dream dreams together. 

I think of the anxious places in our hearts that need an encouraging word from God that in the details of who and where we are, we are seen and accompanied, so that our healing, saving journey can keep moving forward.

And I yearn, let’s go. Let’s not give up on the possibility of seeing and knowing one another, and growing the revolution of the intimate among us as well. 

And in all these places, I yearn: come Holy Spirit, speak your good news and mighty works to us again.

If Job Had a Therapist (Or Even a Few Good Friends)

So May is Mental Health Awareness month. I hadn’t realized that until a friend reached out and asked if we’d want to connect with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, who wanted to collaborate with faith communities on an awareness weekend.

I was so glad for this because our mental well-being matters to us, of course. And it matters to God and it matters to this faith community too. 

Last year we had this huge capital campaign for our 25th anniversary. You all were extraordinarily generous. You pledged over $1.4 million dollars in extra one-time giving to sustain the future of this church, the majority of which has already been given. Another big thank you to us all for that. 

Our biggest goal was to pay off all our old church debts from when we came into this property 20 years ago, and to discern some new ways our church could be a gift to us all and to our neighbors and our whole city, through some new ministry that would express our vision for God’s work of growing what we call beloved community. That’s a society of belonging, of love, of opportunity, wellness, and justice. An expression of Jesus’ vision for the commonwealth of God. 

And as you all pledged toward this campaign, we asked you what you’d like to see our church do more of, and quite a few of you mentioned mental health and wellness. So many that we have a working group right now exploring what our church can do to promote spiritual and mental wellness more broadly –for people that call Reservoir their church but also for our friends and neighbors and others in our city. We’re working on this again because your spiritual and mental well-being, and that of all your friends and neighbors matters to us and it matters to God. 

So I’m glad to be in this mental health awareness partnership today. We actually have two representatives here from the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Line. They’ll be in the dome with a whole bunch of helpful information about mental health and about a ton of mental health and recovery resources for us and for our communities. So stop by and say hi to them, ask questions, pick up resources if you like. 

And today, since we’re studying the old wisdom literature from the Hebrew scriptures, I want to introduce you or re-introduce you to the book of Job, where we meet a person who has experienced considerable trauma. And I want to ask,

What if Job had had a therapist? Or what if Job had even had a few decent friends?

Friends who weren’t therapists or experts on mental health, but maybe just knew the basics.

Job is a weird book. We’re pretty sure this is not history. It’s probably an old legend or fable that was expanded and written down by an intellectual living in Jerusalem like 2,500 years ago. 

The beginning has God making bets with some sort of Satan-type character, and the ending is basically like the very worst happy ending that anyone ever tried to slap onto a tragic story. So the very beginning and very ending, which were probably tacked on last, are kind of awful. But everything else in between is fascinating. We meet this man named Job, who is wrestling with an extraordinary amount of suffering and trauma.

Here’s a taste of it, from the beginning.

Job 1:13-22 (Common English Bible)

13 One day Job’s sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house.

14 A messenger came to Job and said: “The oxen were plowing, and the donkeys were grazing nearby

15 when the Sabeans took them and killed the young men with swords. I alone escaped to tell you.”

16 While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: “A raging fire fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and devoured the young men. I alone escaped to tell you.”

17 While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: “Chaldeans set up three companies, raided the camels and took them, killing the young men with swords. I alone escaped to tell you.”

18 While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house,

19 when a strong wind came from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It fell upon the young people, and they died. I alone escaped to tell you.”

20 Job arose, tore his clothes, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped.

21 He said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.”

22 In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God.

So if we want to keep a distance from this story, we could laugh at it. There’s something almost comical about the speed and totality with which this man’s world comes crumbling down, from two different raiding armies, and fires. and even a strong wind that knocks a whole house down and crushes Job’s kids during their party – geesh. Somewhere out there there’s a preacher saying:

it was the wine that started it.

Evil. 

But let’s not keep a distance. Job has a big loving family and a thriving, prosperous agricultural business, and he loses it all. This is followed soon after by some severe health problems that add chronic physical pain to this heartbreak. 

Maybe you’ve known people who have seemed to face tragedy after tragedy, like stuff just piles up on them? Like when your friend says, it seems like this is the year when all my people are dying. I met a Palestinian man this winter who’d had over 100 extended family members killed in this year’s conflict. Over 100. Those that remain alive have been dispossessed, dislocated as well. 

Or maybe, in smaller ways, you’re been this person. You’ve been the one to face a series of catastrophes that have been more than you can bear. Whether or not they’re as dramatic as Job’s, with the loss of all his children and all his property and nearly all his health. 

It doesn’t do us any good to try to rank order one another’s struggles or trauma. Suffering is suffering. And we need a lot of help when we suffer – whether that is caused by adverse circumstances, as with Job, or whether that is caused more by something within, as for those of us who have chronic physical or mental health difficulties that weren’t necessarily caused by any set of external events. 

We need companions when this happens. We need compassionate, non-judgemental support. And we need help to make it through. 

At first Job finds that from his faith. It’s a real surprise that line:

Job tore his clothes, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshiped.

I mean the first three things they are all signs of grief in his culture. They are things mourners might do. But the worshiping, that’s interesting.

Faith can be an incredible protective factor for our mental health and wellness. When I was looking for a therapist a number of years ago, I told the people I first spoke to on the phone that I did not need a Christian therapist. I didn’t need someone who shared my faith. But I did need someone who would be curious about my faith, and who would respect it, since it’s very important to me. And for years now, off and on, I’ve met with a therapist just like that – who doesn’t share my faith but is glad to explore how my faith colors the work we do and how my faith is a source of resilience for me, as I explore more and more just how much God knows and loves me in all things. 

I’m not actually a big fan of how Job expresses this. The line:

The Lord has given, the Lord has taken. Bless the Lord’s name.

Far be it from me to judge Job’s faith or theology – what works for you works for you, but this is like high up on the things religion can teach you to say to someone in grief that can be extraordinarily unhelpful.

Things like:

God will never give you more trouble than you can handle.

That’s horrible. One, it’s a misinterpretation of a Bible verse that says God won’t tempt you toward sin or evil or badness. But trouble?

  • One: most trouble doesn’t come from God. It’s not God’s fault that bad things happen.
  • And two: when we feel like we’re going through more than we actually can handle, we don’t need someone to tell us otherwise.

This is kind of like that. When someone faces death or any other loss, to say well, God gives good gifts, and then God takes them away, so deal with it. It’s all good. Again, perhaps for Job, believing God is in control gives him comfort. But I don’t agree with him. I don’t think most of our losses are God taking things or people from us. God’s not a taker. And the form of my Christian theology at least is that God is not always in control. Horrible things can happen that God did not make or plan for. But God is always love, and God is always with us in our losses, and God is always contending for the good. 

So not to nitpick here, but I wish Job’s worship could have looked more like knowing that horrible things happen sometimes, and they are not God’s fault, but God’s going to be with us through them all. I actually think the book of Job moves in this direction. 

I’m allowed to talk this way, by the way. Job says a lot of things. The Bible says a lot of things too. To respect the Bible’s insight and authority does not mean needing to agree with every line. The Bible contains a lot of styles of writing, and it says a lot of different things, some of which can be in tension with each other. So to respect the Bible as a witness to what God is like and what faith looks like is to engage it seriously, not to just nod and submit to every line. Don’t assent to every single thing in the Bible, but don’t throw it out either – wrestle with it. Make sense of the whole together. We’re doing that here. 

Alright, though, Job has God to lean on, and there wasn’t such a thing as a therapist back then, but at first at least, Job has three really good friends who show up for him really well. Let’s listen.

Job 2:11-13 (Common English Bible)

11 When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened to him, they came, each one from his home—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah, and Zophar from Naamah. They agreed to come so they could console and comfort him.

12 When they looked up from a distance and didn’t recognize him, they wept loudly. Each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky.

13 They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.

This week I was talking to a thanatologist. I didn’t know what that was until last week. A thanatologist is someone who studies, and educates around, and treats death, loss, and grief. We have one on our staff team at Reservoir. Aubrie Hills, our relatively new pre-school kids’ pastor, is also trained as a social worker and thanatologist. And she’s picked up a few extra hours to help us plan for some of the new ministry work we hope to do next year and beyond, like doubling the impact of our Beloved Community Fund – connecting needs and resources – and also helping us launch these spiritual and mental wellness initiatives. 

And I asked Aubrie, could you tell me what people who are grieving need most. And what she described was kind of like what these three friends do. 

She was like:

when we are grieving, we need someone, or someones, to bear witness. To show up, to listen, and to validate what we are experiencing. That this loss happened, that it’s real, that it matters. 

This goes for death, by the way, but also for other kinds of loss – loss of health, loss of relationship, loss of job, loss of innocence, loss of dreams. And Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar crush this. They stop whatever they are doing and they do what in Jewish culture is called sitting shiva. Accompanying the bereaved in the first seven days of their loss by being there. 

They can’t fix anything. They have no right words to say. In fact, the text says they were silent. For a week. 

But they were not silent with their bodies. They wept with Job. They tore their clothes and put dust on their heads too – maybe not our culture, most of us, but they did what Job was doing. They stopped what they were doing and they mourned with him. 

Aubrie told me that people who are grieving also need others to just help out. Certainly with anything they are asked for, but actually without asking what someone else needs, just doing something. Not being like: let me know if you need anything. 

(When Aubrie said this, I was like: oh, I’ve done that a bunch of times – told people, probably some of you, in low moments – let me know if you need anything. And Aubrie was like people grieving need someone to just do the thing they know how to do that helps. Like say I’m going to drop some food at your door Wednesday night, is that OK? I’d like to walk your dog in the mornings this week if that would help. Is that OK?)

I’m going to give Job’s buddies the benefit of the doubt and say they probably did this. They showed up after all, and let’s imagine they brought food with them or something. 

But then the third thing that came to mind for Aubrie the thanatologist when we were talking is she was like:

then people who are grieving need others to keep doing this. To keep showing up, listening, bearing witness. 

Not just for a few days, but in a month, in three months, in nine months. Because grief can take a while, and mostly other people move on faster than the one who’s born the loss.

And here’s where Job’s friends start screwing up. We’ll skip forward just a few chapters and get one more excerpt.  

Job 8:1-7 (Common English Bible)

Bildad from Shuah responded:

2 How long will you mouth such things
    such that your utterances become a strong wind?
3 Does God pervert justice,
    or does the Almighty distort what is right?
4 If your children sinned against him,
    then he delivered them into the power of their rebellion.
5 If you will search eagerly for God,
    plead with the Almighty.
6 If you are pure and do the right thing,
    then surely he will become active on your behalf
    and reward your innocent dwelling.
7 Although your former state was ordinary,
    your future will be extraordinary.

What has happened? 

Job’s been wondering things like:

why did my kids die? Why am I suffering so much? Where is God in all this?

I was taught,

Job says,

that God blesses the good and curses the bad. But I’m good. I’ve been faithful. I’ve lived right. What the heck, God?

Whatever you think of all that, normal stuff for a religious person to wonder about in grief? 

But it makes Job’s friends uncomfortable, so they start spouting the garbage they learned in Bible school. 

Like

God probably punished your kids, Job, for something they did wrong.

(Maybe it was the wine.)

And how dare you question God? And if you’ll get yourself together, God will bless you again. Everything has a reason, they say.

Or:

maybe God needed another angel in heaven.

Or:

maybe you lost a child, but you can have another one. Horrible things people have said to someone in grief. 

Job’s friends want him to move on because they are uncomfortable with the honest, raw mess of grief. 

When someone we know is in grief, or when someone we know is struggling with anxiety or depression or any other form of mental health struggle, we may be uncomfortable with the degree of their difficulty. And we might not have answers to things they do or say. And that’s OK. Most of us aren’t therapists. We’re not being asked to fix anything. (And even our therapists don’t exactly fix things either, even if they have some specific skill sets for treatment.)

What grieving people need is others to bear witness and help a little, and to keep bearing witness. To show up, to care, to be there with whatever compassion or empathy we can find. That’s the job. 

And that’s where Job’s friends can’t pull it off. 

Sometimes we need a therapist or a psychiatrist or other mental health professionals because our mental health struggle is complex enough that someone with some special training and skills can help us in ways other people can’t. And sometimes we need a therapist or we need the behavioral health hotline or Samaritans hotline or the national 988 suicide and crisis hotline because we feel we’re too much for our friends, or they’re having a hard time still showing up.

And in this case, it’s not only a therapist that can keep bearing witness. Sometimes it can be a pastor, a family member, again a kind person on the other end of a hotline, or a different friend.

I mean Job’s friends turn truly terrible. When all this ends, I don’t know if they’re ever getting invited to the barbeque again. But just because a friend lets us down in one way, doesn’t mean they aren’t a friend worth keeping in other ways. 

It takes a village to raise a child, they say. But it takes a village to love a human too. So we all need our villages. Our people, our communities. And when there’s a gap in that community, sometimes a professional resource like a therapist, or like a support group, or like a helpline, can fill the gap. Some of those kinds of resources will be out in the dome for us. 

This has become more of a sermon about grief than mental health per se. And we’re nearing the end here. But I just want to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons that we or those we love may end up needing the support of mental health professionals. Or that we might need to apply mental wellness strategies in our lives that mental health professionals have taught us. 

Job didn’t have the benefit of a therapist or the wisdom of any mental health professionals. That field didn’t exist back then. But it does now. And I’m speaking to you as a pastor who’s worked with a therapist most of the past seven years and pays a lot of attention to the writing and wisdom of mental health professionals, including those that integrate their work with Christian spirituality.

So let me close with a few words of gratitude to this field, with a few other things I’ve learned about spiritual and mental wellness from our mental health professionals. 

I’ve learned that suffering happens. We will grieve loss in these lives of ours. Many of us at one time or another have struggled or will struggle with trauma. Some of us face long-term, significant mental health challenges, and many of us have faced or will face them for a season.

These are not signs that we are broken or that we’ve done anything wrong. These are not signs that God isn’t loving us, or that God isn’t good, or that God isn’t here. And all this goes for when our kids or our other spouse or our other loved ones face these troubles. 

I learned that as with Job, everyone needs a compassionate companion. Someone or someones who listen and bear witness. And when we can, we need to be those people for each other too. 

I learned that the work happens not just in our minds but in our bodies. I mean geesh, when things get weird, Job’s friends sit there and argue with him. They could have just cooked together or gone out for a walk or something. Just as our so-called mental health can show up as challenges in the rest of our body, same the other way. Finding peace and well-being in our body can have an impact on our mental well-being too. Our spiritual well-being also, but that’s another talk.

I’ve learned that when you reckon with trauma and grief and mental health struggle, you get more comfortable with ambiguity. You learn that two things can be true at once. You can resent part of what someone has been to you, while appreciating other parts. You can have grief and gratitude at the same time. You can shed tears, and they’re sad tears or happy tears, because they’re both of those at once. 

And I’ve learned that unlike in Job, happy endings aren’t guaranteed. But whatever help we can get and whatever work we can do on our mental health and wellness is worth it. Sometimes this means we’ll be able to stay alive, and that’s such a good thing. Sometimes it means we can keep moving forward, knowing we’re not alone, and hanging in there. And that’s a good thing too. And sometimes it means that we find miracles of recovery, miracles of turn-around in our lives.

With the help of God and friends, these are more common than we think too. And that’s pretty great. And it’s worth hanging on for, worth fighting for, worth getting the help. We’re all worth it. And we’re all in this together.

A Few of My Favorite Proverbs

When I was a public school teacher, I had this fascinating principal Bak Fun Wong.  And one of the interesting things about him is he often led through proverbs. Like during a long one on one conversation or in a key moment in a staff meeting, he’d almost never weigh in with a solution or a proposal to whatever we were trying to figure out. Instead, he’d drop these proverbs – these one line sayings into a discussion and invite you to work with them and see where they’d take you.

For instance, in working on some really big change we didn’t know how to pull off, he might say:

To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible.

And to be honest, I’d be kind of annoyed. Like eyesight of the invisible is a power we do not have. Maybe I’d think, you know, Bak Fun, that is not what I would consider a solution, or a plan. Or maybe I’d think, Bak Fun, I’ve heard you say that 14 times this year already and it’s not landing any differently this time. Or maybe I’d think, this is crying out for parody.

One of my co-teachers and I used to joke about creating a collection of twisted Bak Fun proverbs. So like this one – To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible. Became: yeah, but to do what’s actually possible, you have to pay freaking attention to what is visible. (I felt annoyed with Bak Fun sometimes – too abstract, too impractical.)

But Bak Fun kept with his ways. He was not asking for my feedback or approval. Which I am grateful for. Because, surprise, surprise, he was usually wiser than me. He was inviting us into deeper, more powerful truths about what makes life work. And he was doing something better for his team than giving us solutions. He was creating an environment where we could co-construct a way forward together. And his proverbs kind of shaped the container of that environment.

I became a convert, in a way. 

Bak Fun had a lot of these proverbs. He was also a Chinese calligraphy artist, and he would paint these proverbs in black ink, with their English translations, frame them and give them to us as gifts. I have a couple on my wall in my office. And 15 years since we stopped working together, I still think of them all the time. Not because they’re always true in every circumstance. They’re not.

But they’re always deep. They’re always true in part. And if you can think of them as conversation starters and not just commands, they’re pretty powerful. As last words, meh, they may or may not always be right. But as first words, they’re pretty compelling. 

This is the kind of thing we find in the Bible’s wisdom literature of Proverbs. Sometimes they seem helpful and deep, other times the opposite – annoying little cliches. They can seem disarmingly simple. Out of touch with our times. 

Our Saturday community group at the church spends half our time every week in Bible study, and yesterday we took a chapter of Proverbs and we each had to find the one we like the most, the one that seems truest, as well as they one that we like the least, the one that seems just plain wrong.

And I tell you that at first, it was a lot easier to pick out the ones we have problems with. Kind of fun, but geesh, there seems like some terrible advice in there. 

Next week we’ll look at a different type of wisdom literature. May is Mental Health awareness month. And the state of Massachusetts is including faith communities in that awareness initiative for the first time. I worked with a couple folks at the department of mental health to talk about this initiative and spread the word. And next week, I’ll preach a mental health related sermon from an Old Testament wisdom book called Job, which is all about suffering. The sermon is: What if Job had a therapist, or even a few good friends?

But this week, back in Proverbs. What I’ll do this week is share just a few of my favorite proverbs and share how and why they speak to me. I hope you like the Proverbs, but even more so, I hope there’s some helpful stuff in here about how we read this book or even any book of the Bible. And maybe even some helpful stuff about how we practice spiritual growth, spiritual formation at all, with or without the Bible driving that. 

So here we go, four of my favorite Proverbs and why. 

Here’s the first, maybe my most favorite. 

Proverbs 26:11 (Common English Bible)

11 Like a dog that returns to its vomit,

    so a fool repeats foolish mistakes.

This is a modern translation I like. The one I have memorized is a little more poetic. What often goes through my head is that one: As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. 

I like this because it’s gross and really specific, so it’s memorable. 

I like it because it’s true. I mean, I grew up with dogs in the house – plural, almost always two or three at a time, and they are gross. And after no dogs in the house for like 30 years, I have one again, and yep, 30 years later, dogs are still gross. Just telling you. They’ll do stuff like this.

And it’s true about people. I mean who doesn’t have the ridiculously stupid things we do, and we know they mess up our lives, or someone else’s life, or create problems for a whole bunch of people. And we know it’s foolish, and we just keep on doing that. I mean maybe you don’t relate. There is allegedly a class of people that learns things the easy way. But I’m not one of them. 

And judging by what I see out in the world and – let’s keep it real – some of the stuff you all share with me – and I think a lot of them are not people that learn things the easy way. We can come back to our core mistakes, like our greatest hits of folly, again and again.

And as I was sharing with the group yesterday, I actually really like the “fool” proverbs. There’s a whole class of them. There are actually lots of “categories” of proverbs, and this is one of them – the ones that knock fools, or contrast foolishness with wisdom. And I like them because they’re real. 

I mean there are some people who seem really un-self aware or really un-self -regulated. Like they don’t direct their emotions and instincts into fruitful, positive sets of actions. And the Proverbs are like:

some people are like this a lot. Notice that. And maybe don’t hire people like this. Don’t work for people like this if you don’t have to. Don’t vote for people like this. Because fools are gonna fool. It’s going to keep happening.

And it’s not just other people. Like these fool proverbs invite me to get curious about the foolish parts of me.

  • Like where do I keep repeating the same no-common sense moves in my life?
  • Where am I stuck in the same negative grooves that aren’t doing me or anyone else any good? 

And if I can see that, this gives me a way to read this proverb. Or really any proverb, or life advice or direction. Three ways actually.

One, there’s an invitation here to know the truth about yourself. 

For next week’s sermon, I’m looking at a list that a guy named Chuck DeGroat developed. Chuck is a therapist and teacher. He actually founded a therapy center years ago that is connected with Pastor Lydia’s old church in the Bay Area, where she first worked as a pastor. And one of the things he does now is counsel pastors and other leaders whose lives have come off the rails. Really interesting person.

Anyway, he has this list of the five pillars of emotional health and the first two are self-awareness and self-regulation. Self-awareness and self-regulation. Knowing the truth about yourself, and being able to regulate, lead and direct yourself toward health.  

See the proverbs are first invitations to pay attention to the truth about ourselves. We should read them in the order of me – you – they, not the other way around. In other words, follow the advice of Jesus in pulling the plank out of our own eye, before we look at the speck in someone else’s. Let the proverbs help us examine the truth of our own life. And maybe beyond that examine the truth together with people we’re in direct relationship with. And then maybe lastly, give whatever leftover energy we have to think about people we’ll never know – famous people, people in the news, stuff like that. 

And as we read them to know the truth about ourselves, I think God would invite us to do self-awareness with compassion, not condemnation. Some of us in the group yesterday were noticing that we read Proverbs through this super-critical lens, because we’ve got a lot of critical voices in our head. And Proverbs can come off as kind of harsh sometimes. 

But I as a dog owner again, and so a dog lover, when my dog is gross like this, I don’t hate him for it. If he literally pukes out his food, and then walks back to it and eats it up, I’m not like:

you disgusting creature, you are never welcome in my house again.

No, I just stop him. (I don’t even know if that’s totally necessary. I Googled: should you let a dog… and it auto-filled from there… eat its own vomit…. apparently lots of us have wondered…. and the internet was somewhat divided on this subject)

But when it comes to me metaphorically going back to my own vomit again, I think I’m invited to see myself as I see my dog, which is to be like:

huh, this is not ideal. This is worth doing something about. But dang, even so, I love myself so much. I’m worth the work. I’m a work of art, and it’s worth cleaning up the smudgy parts that take me down.

Is it weird to hear someone else talk that way? It’s weird for me to talk that way. Like I am so beautiful, so worthy, so beloved, that it’s worth trying to sort out the fool parts of me. I’m worth it. It’s weird because we don’t mostly think of ourselves this way, but God does. God does. 

So if God or any tool of God’s like the Bible invites self-reflection, self-awareness, even self-critique, always filter it through a lens of growing self-compassion. Maybe I’m a slow learner. But I want to get there. I want to keep finding my way toward a life that works. In the Bible, this is called righteousness – good living, right relationships. I want to keep finding my way toward a life of love. 

Second favorite proverb. (And I stuck this one in last minute, so it won’t be on your screen)

Proverbs 26:15 (Common English Bible)

15 Lazy people bury their hand into the bowl,

    too tired to return it to their mouth.

So at first this is a crappy proverb. I was taking a walk with one of you this past week. We were talking about the stupid things we keep doing and about our struggle to start things and our even bigger struggles to finish things. 

And for both of us, this struggle is real, it’s deep, and we’re pretty sure it’s genetic too. There’s a family pattern. And there’s a diagnosis for this too.

And they were asking me for advice, and I joked to them, well, despite the sermons we’re doing now, don’t go to Proverbs, because they just call us lazy people. There’s a whole class of “lazy people” Proverbs, and they are not flattering. 

So it’s like:

thanks a lot, Bible. Call me a lazy person when I don’t finish things. Like you’re like the dum-dum who puts their spoon in the bowl of cereal, and never gets it back out to your mouth. Ha, ha, stupid you!

I don’t know about you, but that kind of shame does not inspire transformation in my life. 

But let’s read it sideways. 

What if this is an image more than a criticism? Like that not getting stuff done, or never getting stuff done on time, it’s like that person that doesn’t have the discipline to get their own breakfast into their mouth. As an image, it’s funny. It’s kind of illuminating. And it makes you wonder, like maybe something can be done here. Maybe there is hope.

And then what if you can edit the language to make it work for you. Like Proverbs says “lazy person” in some other language and culture from nearly three thousand years ago, but we can be like

– we’ve realized that is not a helpful thing to call anyone, including yourself.

So I can change it to something like

– people who struggle to get stuff done.

And what if when I read it this way

– people who struggle to get stuff done can be like that person with their spoon stuck in the bowl,

and what if I read it not from the fixed mindset that implies but from a growth mindset. Like

you’re never stuck exactly where you are. With help and intention and a little work, things can change.

And that can get me curious about what change is possible in my life today.

And then what if I read this not as a condemnation but as an invitation. And what if read it not as a statement but as a question? Like:

what would help you, Steve, not leave your spoon in the bowl today? 

And then that makes me think of this exercise that is recommended for people like me with ADHD, this little mindfulness exercise called mindful eating. Where now and then, when I find myself eating by myself, instead of eating in a hurry, or eating while working or scrolling on my phone, I can eat while doing nothing else. Eat slowly, and eat mindfully. Pay attention to the tastes and smells and feels of each bite.

And one thing that will happen is well, I’ll eat. I won’t leave my food in the bowl. And I’ll learn something about being present, right here, in the only place in the world that is real – the present now. And that kind of presence, it turns out, helps with a lot of things, including helping with getting things done.

As my yoga teacher says,

there are two places in the world you can be – you can be now here – or nowhere.

That’s it. Nowhere or now here. And now here is almost always a better place to be. 

See where a different way of reading Proverbs can take us. Away from right/wrong, either/or and towards curiosity, towards depth, towards wisdom. And away from compliance or obedience and toward discernment – toward finding God’s best path forward this moment, this day. This is the way, friends.

More briefly, my third favorite proverb. It’s a pair of two. 

Proverbs 26: 4-5 (Common English Bible)

4 Don’t answer fools according to their folly,

    or you will become like them yourself.

5 Answer fools according to their folly,

    or they will deem themselves wise.

This is the place where Proverbs most tells on itself and illustrates what I was just talking about. Like out of one side of its mouth – it’s like,

don’t talk to fools.

And then a second later, it’s like

make sure you give those fools an answer. 

Why? Well, because life is complicated. No one size fits all advice always applies. 

Sometimes people say messed up things and it is better to just not engage. Don’t sink to their level. It takes two people to argue. When someone else invites you to the table, you do not need to show up. But then sometimes, you’ve got to say something. Maybe that person is open to correction. Maybe someone else is listening that needs to hear.

How do you know which Proverb applies to you in any given moment? Well, it depends, right? I think the idea here is – no one verse in the Bible can tell you. Figure it out. Trust your intuition. Or don’t, and ask someone you trust for a second opinion. Wisdom is about finding the best way forward, not about one-size-fits all truisms. 

And last favorite proverb. This is actually a whole set of them. 

Proverbs 10:17, 11:14, 12:15 (Common English Bible)

10:17 Those who heed instruction are on the way to life,

    but those who ignore correction lose their way.

11:14 Without guidance, a people will fall,

    but there is victory with many counselors.

12:15 Fools see their own way as right,

    but the wise listen to advice.

Proverbs 17:1, 5-6, 18:24, 22:2 (Common English Bible)

17:1Better a dry crust with quiet

    than a house full of feasting with quarrels.

5 Those who mock the poor insult their maker;

    those who rejoice in disaster won’t go unpunished.

6 Grandchildren are the crown of the elderly,

    and the glory of children is their parents.

18:24 There are persons for companionship,

    but then there are friends who are more loyal than family.

22:2 The rich and the poor have this in common:

    the Lord made them both.

All of these proverbs are a little different, but to me they boil down to this: find your people. You’re going to need them. And they’re going to need you.

When I was 19, and just getting to know Grace, she asked me once:

do you ever feel bad for all your people have done?

She was thinking of me as a descendant of Europeans, people who not that long ago were trying to colonize the whole dang world. And she was like:

how’d that go for you all? Do you ever feel bad about that?

And looking back, that question was one of the beginnings of my journey toward racial awareness and racial justice. And it was one of the beginnings of my journey away from individualism as a default – I am who I am, me, myself and I – and toward collectivism – like we need each other. We are all in this together. 

But at the time, I had no idea what I said. But I know I thought: I have know idea what you’re talking about. I don’t have “a people.” Someone else did all that stuff. Nothing to do with me.

But the Proverbs are clear that people who think of themselves as an island – not needing others, not responsible to others, not part of a generational web of interconnected – people like that are – you guessed it – fools. 

Proverbs says we have people and we need people. The good life if we are going to find it includes a lot of listening and learning. Anyone who just depends on their own inner light, or their own so-called genius, or says they don’t need advisors and mentors and stuff, they are self-deluded. They’re being a fool.

And Proverbs says we don’t only need people, we need to be a part of a wide web of people that aren’t just like us. 

We’re living at a time in culture where it’s easy for our people to be people who are just like us, the people of our so-called “life stage” however we see that, or the people who look like us or spend like us or think like us, the people we vibe with. 

But these Proverbs have so many other directions their language for the collective goes in. We need a word where rich and poor are in community together, seeing their mutual created worth and value. We need our family, but sometimes we need our chosen family too – people that are more loving and loyal than our own family. We need younger and older too. The best thing for grandparents is their grandchildren, and the glory of kids is their parents. Literally, but metaphorically too. We need people of different generations from us. We really need each other. 

  • Who are your people, friends?
  • Who are you connected with?
  • How is your circle of people getting wider, not narrower?

If this feels hard, church is good for this. Try out a community group, or volunteer somewhere and see who you meet. Or talk to one of us pastors about this. We’d love for Reservoir to be a place where you have people and where you’re part of the people someone else has too. 

So that’s it – a few of my favorite Proverbs and a few ways to read them. And hopefully, you hear, with a few ways to receive spiritual input and wisdom in general 

  • Never just as me but always as part of a we. Not to use against someone else, but to try out on me first. 
  • Not with command and condemnation, but with curiosity and compassion.
  • Not fixed mindset, but growth mindset. 
  • Not one size fits all, but wondering what moves me toward larger, freer, more loving today.

I think this is the way, friends. I think this is the way.

Let’s pray. 

How Is Wisdom Calling Out to You?

In my first month as a high school principal, I inherited a master schedule that was pretty messed up. A lot of kids didn’t have the classes they would need in less than two months. The former administration that had built the schedule were either retired or laid off. And not many people work in schools in July and August. So I had just a few weeks to learn a scheduling software I’d never used before and to fix as much of it as I could. 

There was this one central office administrator who knew this computer program and was working during the summer, and it was her job to show me the ropes. 

Now I can be a difficult student. I like to learn things really quickly, and I have a million questions, and sometimes I struggle to not interrupt people when I really get focused on something. So a few days into working with Marilyn, the district administrator, and she said to me:

Steve, you’re a damn comet. 

I thought she was complimenting me. Comets sound cool. These objects flying through space, looking like they’re stars or on fire or something. And I was pretty sure Marilyn was complimenting me at how fast I was learning and getting stuff done. Comet.

But later I realized I was only like 20% right about this. Because Marilyn was like – it was helpful that you were learning quickly and trying to fix things. But mostly, this is frustrating.

She was like –

You have to slow down. Take a breath. Listen for a while. Slow down, and you’ll learn this thing, and do what you’ve got to do.

I wish I could say I listened to Marilyn’s advice, but I mostly didn’t. I think I tried to convince myself that her whole comet line, which after all she had said “damn comet” and had sounded frustrated when she said it, but still I wanted to think it was a compliment and maybe didn’t listen.

I’d sort of been like this my whole life – that old proverb “haste makes waste” was for other people. When I first got my drivers’ license, I had a number of speeding incidents. And those had cost me money, but never an accident, so maybe it was fine. When I learned to ski, I liked to fly and take jumps and all and I had some spectacular crashes, but no permanent damage, so again, maybe it was OK.

I’ve been a bike commuter most of my adult life, and at that point, my habits on the bicycle were kind of embarrassing. I rode fast, I was really hit or miss about following traffic rules, and when I couldn’t find my helmet now and then, I just rode without it. 

I thought I didn’t need this wisdom, because I was a damn comet, and it was working out OK.

Well, later in that same first year as a principal, I was biking home from work one day. And that was one of the days I was riding without a helmet, because I was rushing to get to work early and couldn’t remember where I’d left it. I was also talking on the phone while I was riding because a student at the school had been getting in trouble, and their dad was an important person on the school committee, and this was kind of an awkward situation for everyone, so I was trying to talk it through with this frustrated dad who was also more or less one of my boss’ bosses, and that made things urgent. 

I wasn’t biking all that fast, but I was on the phone and not paying attention, and I hit a patch of sand left over from the winter storms and started to lose control of my bike. I don’t remember what happened next. Except that I was on the ground, and my head hurt like hell, and I reached back and it was wet and red. I tried to get up and start walking in the direction of my house, and someone walking by yelled at me not to do that and grabbed and started directing me toward the emergency room of the hospital which I was right in front of when I crashed and split my skull open in a couple places.

A few staples and a concussion recovery later, and I thought:

Maybe haste makes waste. Maybe I have to learn to slow down.

So like 14 years later, maybe my head’s not 100% right anymore, and I still rush into action sometimes, but I’m trying. 

Because if you want to reach old age, and you want to not keep getting concussions, you eventually need to listen to wisdom.

Learning wisdom is what makes our lives work. Like however talented we are or not, however attractive, however so-called smart in different ways, our lives don’t work if we don’t grow in wisdom. 

They get stuck. Or they fly off the rails, Or we self-sabotage again and again. And the catch all word for the stuff we learn – not just here, in our head – but in our hearts, in our bodies, in our whole selves – the stuff we learn that makes our lives really work well, that’s wisdom.

And that’s what we’ll talk about in our sermons from now through when summer starts on Memorial Day – what makes life work, as we read together some of this part of the Hebrew scriptures, the Bible’s Old Testament, that is called the wisdom literature. 

The centerpiece of this wisdom literature in the Bible is a collection of all kinds of earthy advice that’s called Proverbs. We’ll read part of its first chapter today. It starts like this:

Proverbs 1:1-7 (Common English Bible)

The proverbs of Solomon, King David’s son, from Israel:
2 Their purpose is to teach wisdom and discipline,
    to help one understand wise sayings.


3 They provide insightful instruction,
    which is righteous, just, and full of integrity.


4 They make the naive mature,
    the young knowledgeable and discreet.


5 The wise hear them and grow in wisdom;
    those with understanding gain guidance.


6 They help one understand proverbs and difficult sayings,
    the words of the wise, and their puzzles.


7 Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

This here is like a title or an introduction. It says these proverbs will teach us what is righteous, just, and full of integrity. What will make us less naive, and more mature. Which sounds old-fashioned maybe or religious, or maybe condescending. But I think the wisdom literature is here to help us develop lives that work. That go about things the right way, that are fair and equitable, that help us be the same, trustworthy person no matter where we are or who we’re with.

It’s like Marilyn saying to me –

try and stop being such a damn comet.

You’ll burn up, or crash, or just be annoying to work with. That was true. And that won’t do you or anyone else any good. 

Try wisdom. 

This ancient near eastern tradition of wisdom literature is really old. The earliest Babylonian wisdom literature was mostly about magic and exorcism. It was like in a weird and scary world, how do you master the power to be less vulnerable and more in control?

But over time, wisdom literature in these ancient cultures shifted to be less superstitious and more practical. So that wisdom literature became like the self-help material of these cultures – it was about the art of being successful. About life mastery, growing a life that works.

Wisdom literature started to focus on the important, practical matters of life that our schools don’t always teach. Like how do you develop the character of a trustworthy, dependable person? How do you get some wealth but not have it ruin you? How do you not be the kind of person that doesn’t derail your own life, whether by accidents caused by your own foolishness, or by blowing up your friendships or your marriage, or by being unable to commit to things for the long haul, or just otherwise being a fool? How do we keep growing into a life that works?

Proverbs wants to help with this. 

But it’s not just self help. Because that’s not how growth works. We don’t do it alone. We need each other, and we need the wisdom that came before us. We need the wisdom of our teachers, the wisdom of our elders, the wisdom of our ancestors, and the wisdom of God, our creator. 

This is where wisdom starts, Proverbs says, by slowing down and listening. It starts with respect for what came before us. It starts with the kind of humility and awe that makes us want to listen. This is the kind of attitude Proverbs calls the fear of God. Admitting we’re small, and listening.

Where do you start, though? And what does wisdom sound like?

Let’s see where Proverbs starts as we keep reading.

Proverbs 1:8-19 (Common English Bible)

8 Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction;
    don’t neglect your mother’s teaching;


9         for they are a graceful wreath on your head,
        and beads for your neck.


10 My son, don’t let sinners entice you.
    Don’t go


11     when they say:
        “Come with us.
        Let’s set up a deadly ambush.
        Let’s secretly wait for the innocent just for fun.


12         Let’s swallow up the living like the grave —
        whole, like those who go down into the pit.


13         We’ll find all sorts of precious wealth;
        we’ll fill our houses with plunder.


14         Throw in your lot with us;
        we’ll share our money.”


15 My son, don’t go on the path with them;
    keep your feet from their way,


16     because their feet run to evil;
            they hurry to spill blood.


17 It’s useless to cast a net
    in the sight of a bird.


18 But these sinners set up a deadly ambush;
    they lie in wait for their own lives.


19 These are the ways of all who seek unjust gain;
    it costs them their lives.

So we read this in my community group the other Saturday and it seemed funny to some of us. Proverbs talks itself up as this well of wisdom, and then as it gets going, we listen in on a parent sitting down their kid for a huge life lesson, figuring we’re going to start with the most important stuff, what we all need to know.

And get this advice – don’t join in with the local street gang. Like don’t jump into the next band of armed robbers that appear. Which, fine, maybe good advice for your kid, but really, is this the thing we most need?

I mean I have made my share of mistakes, but I have never set up a deadly ambush just for fun. I promise. I mean when I’ve done it, it’s been for other reasons, I swear, not just for fun. And my three kids – they have their problems. But we never sat them down before school and were like today, please, do not rob your classmates and share your plunder with us. And please, today, do not spill blood.

On the surface, it seems basic. Is this all that Proverbs has got? 

But then as we talked, we were like, hold on, the schools we went to were full of bullying, groups of kids ganging up on someone they thought was weaker or different. And our kids’ schools are like that still, where people get bullied, just for fun.

And aren’t there other ways that when people just go with the flow around us, our schools or our workplaces remain toxic, or our communities remain unwelcoming and inequitable, like the dances some of our suburbs are playing right now to try to skirt the law and keep from building more housing. 

See this is another way that Proverbs isn’t self-help literature. Because like all the best wisdom literature, it isn’t just personal, it’s collective. We rise and fall together. If one of us is getting wiser, if God is doing something good in our lives, the sign isn’t so much that we think our life is getting better, it’s that the people around us think this. 

And the more I read this first bit of wisdom with this in mind, that it’s not just private, personal advice, the more I’m like I wish any of our societies would slow down and listen. 

  • Would the explorers that traveled from Europe to these lands I’m on today have wondered – what can I learn from who’s there already?
  • And what can I share?
  • And how can we do something together?

Instead of running their feet to evil and becoming extractors and enslavers and using my faith to justify it all.

  • Or would that when this country I’m a citizen of started emerging as the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world when my grandparents were young, what if we hadn’t decided to become the world’s biggest arms dealer, thinking might makes right, and rushing to spill blood?
  • What if we’d just focused on being a food dealer, or a love dealer, or a justice collaborator instead? 

I think this ancient wisdom still speaks. It can still still tell us the truth about ourselves. And I still think it’s urgent that we listen. 

Because our lives are at stake. I love the wisdom here that people who seek unjust gain, the ultimate harm is it costs your life – not just other people’s lives, but your own life. 

Get caught up in violence and extraction and just looking out for you and your own and not others, and you’ll lose yourself.

What will it cost us,

Jesus said,

if we gain the whole world but lose our souls?

Having pastored and counseled people reckoning with serious harm they’ve done, this is true. The harm we do comes back to eat us alive. 

And living in this country with decades of innovation and power and wealth and success behind us for some of us at least, I think man if America isn’t soul-sick and defensive these days? Something has cost us our life. 

So in walks wisdom to the room saying don’t neglect your mother and father’s teaching. Listen to your elders. Listen to your ancestors. Listen to God. 

And then we don’t get laws per se, instead we get a set of stories and a ton of earthy advice.

How do we personalize this, knowing what’s for us? And how do we really take it in? How do we not be like me, when someone tells us we’re moving too fast and mistake the warning for a compliment? 

Where do we start? 

I think the end of this passage gives us something to take away today. 

Proverbs 1:20-23 (Common English Bible)

20 Wisdom shouts in the street;
    in the public square she raises her voice.

21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.
    At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say:

22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté,
    mockers hold their mocking dear,
    and fools hate knowledge?

23 You should respond when I correct you.
    Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you.
    I’ll reveal my words to you.

Proverbs insists that not only does wisdom speak, she is shouting in the street, calling out above the noisy crowds. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman. Later the gospel of John says that Jesus was Lady Wisdom come to life. It says that eternal Logos – the wise Word of God – became flesh and dwelt among us. And so in the Christian tradition, Wisdom is always personal. It’s never a set of facts we learn. And it’s kind of gender-bending. Wisdom is the wisest of women who beckons us to sit at her feet. And wisdom is Jesus Christ, son of the living God, who invites us to follow him. And wisdom is the androgynous, beyond gender, Holy Spirit of God who is the truth-telling voice both without and within. 

And so we may wonder: If wisdom is a woman shouting in the street, and if wisdom is the truth of Jesus the word of God, and if wisdom is the Spirit of God seeking to speak life-giving truth to us still, what is wisdom saying to us? What is wisdom saying to you? 

One way to start to answer this question is to ask –

what has life been trying to teach us recently, whether or not we’ve been listening. 

What truth is crying out to you, to make your life work better, for you and for others?

For me, it’s not so much the haste makes waste thing. I don’t derail my life this way so much anymore. Maybe sometimes, but not as much.

But last year, when I was gifted some time off by this community, in the form of a sabbatical, there was a course-correcting wisdom that came my way. The word I learned is called Enclosure.

I stayed in a monastery a couple times during my sabbatical, and there an enclosure is the place where the public can’t go. It’s the private space, sacred to the monks or nuns that live there permanently. Where they preserve the way of life to which they are called.

And for me, enclosure has become this metaphor for the sacred commitments in my life that I am called to, that make my life work. And over the past several months, I’m thinking more and more about the people and habits and commitments that form the core of my life, and that I don’t let anyone or anything interrupt. 

As a person who has tended to want to YES to everything that interests me in life, I’m learning that the small set of people and things I say yes to needs more protecting, and that has meant working on saying NO a little more often too. And that’s taking a lot of practice for me, but man if it isn’t important, and protecting me from regret down the road, I believe. 

That’s me, though. You may be in the opposite place today – the kind of person who’s been saying NO too often and needs to learn more YESes. I don’t know. So my encouragement today isn’t to do any particular thing in your life, but to ask:

What has life been trying to teach me? 

Where is Wisdom crying out to you with her fierce and gentle voice 

What’s calling to you? 

We’ll ask this repeatedly in the weeks to come, but perhaps we can close by taking a quick minute on this…

  • How is the Spirit of God trying to lead you toward a more healthy, abundant life?
  • How is Lady Wisdom crying out to you, with her voice of encouragement or correction?
  • If you could sit at a table today with your ancestors assembled, or perhaps even with the living God, what observations might they make about your life? What might they have to say?

New Life When You Are Walking Away

Hello, and happy Easter, friends!

I want to start with a bit of a good news/bad news moment, maybe depending on how old you are.

I read a while back that at least according to one large social science study, we know what on average is the least happy age in people’s lives.

Anyone have a guess when that is? Least happy age, on average.

Apparently, it’s 47.2 years old. 

Now obviously this is just an average, but for me…

I turned 47 in 2020 – great year, right? 

2020 was gonna be a big year, like the best year. 

I had done some serious inner life work in my early 40s, and I was feeling kind of happy and free those days. And our church had done some hard change work during those same years. That had been really stressful. But by early 2020, things at church here too were also kind of awesome. Probably the happiest, healthiest season I’d seen in our church as a pastor. And I had my first sabbatical ever coming up in the summer. And our family had been saving up for years for our first ever trip to China, where our Chinese-American kids had never been. 

Our oldest kid was graduating from high school that year, and that big trip together just afterwards – it all was going to be epic.

Until it wasn’t. Hello, Covid. And goodbye, everything else. Our schools shut down. Church shut down. Everything was shutting down. We all thought we’d chill out for a couple of weeks and let this weird virus blow over, but then it didn’t. 

And the season of canceling began.

We canceled the trip to China, and then we canceled the smaller trip we’d booked instead. 

School was canceled, kids’ prom, graduations, canceled. My sabbatical, canceled. Everything, canceled. And we all worried – just how bad would this get? Who would we lose? Just how much would this hurt? 

Some of you all were out there being heroic as essential workers in that season. Me, I was figuring out how to properly disinfect our groceries every couple of weeks, and how to be a professional gatherer of community when people weren’t allowed to get together. 

We were trying best we could as a church to respond to isolation and fear and grief and then to a movement for racial justice. It was an important time, and in some ways, we did well by each other and by what was happening in this world.

But it was hard and tiring, and then right after we sent our oldest kid off to college. While I was tired and drained, I ended up in a weird and stupid extended family conflict that was the last straw for me. 

I was done and I found myself dreaming of walking away from it all. 

Like, maybe I could peace out on the people that had done me wrong and just be done with them. Maybe I could walk away from the sources of conflict in my life.

And I’ll admit to you all that for the first time ever in that fall of 2020, I was wondering what it would be like to walk away from being a pastor too. I found myself daydreaming about exit ramps and ways I could live a smaller, simpler life where I could nurse my disappointments in peace or carve out a little world with my family where nobody and nothing could hurt us any more.  

So yeah, 47.2 years old landed right on time for me, most definitely one of the least happy moments of my life. 

Three, four years later, though, thinking about where I find myself now in a new decade, it’s striking just how often help found me. It’s striking just how often new perspective and new growth found me. It’s striking where love would not let me go, where new life found me. 

Again and again in these years, it’s seemed like I’ve met the risen Jesus, coming my way and bringing me back to peace.

So friends, this Easter, I want to talk about the risen Jesus and new life when you’ve given up and you’re walking away. 

Each of the four gospels in the Bible tells the resurrection story differently. Here’s a story that the book of Luke tells. 

Luke 24:13-24 (Common English Bible)

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.

14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened.

15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey.

16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.

20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.

21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago.

22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning

23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.

24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

We’ll pick up more of the story in a minute. 

I think Cleopas and his friend are 47.2 years old. Maybe. They are also colonized oppressed people who have lost what they thought was their way forward. 

They’re disappointed, grieving. 

We had hoped, they say.

We had hoped. 

They thought the promises of God for their liberation, their ancestors’ dreams, were coming true.

And now they are walking away.

They are walking away from Jerusalem.

They’re walking away from God, given that the truth they thought they knew about God has let them down.

And they’re walking away from the life they thought they’d have – victorious, fulfilled, redeemed, as they put it. 

Then Jesus shows up like that friend of yours who never pays attention to the news.

He’s like –

you all seem bummed out. What’s wrong?

What’s wrong?!? Who are you to ask that kind of question? “What’s not wrong?”

they say. 

Friends, what are you walking away from today? 

And where do you feel like you’re living in a time of cataclysm that if people would wake up and pay attention, they’d see it like you do?

Beyond that terrible moment at 47.2 years old, I had spent parts of my 40s walking away from a lot of things. Walking away from the easy lives or the happiness I thought my kids would have. Walking away from religious systems and communities that I’d once called home. Walking away from some bad ideas and some old stories about myself that weren’t true and didn’t set me free but were still hard to leave behind.

In my life as a pastor among you, I hear so many stories of disappointment and walking away. Stories of people walking away from a dream, disappointed with where they haven’t yet arrived at this time of life. I hear people walking away from ways of being in their marriage, or ways of being in their bodies, or ways of being in their faith that weren’t walking out? And sometimes you’re glad to be making a change, but dang, if it isn’t hard?

So much walking away.

And just about everyone I talk to feels like we are living in times of cataclysm – big and scary threats and changes that aren’t going anywhere. A lot of us name the cataclysm differently. We don’t all rank order the worst, most apocalyptic things going on in the world the same way. But most of us have got a list, don’t we?

I was spending time with some engaged and newly married couples recently talking about whether or not they’d have kids and if they did, what that would be like. And someone brought up, as someone always did these days, that maybe it’s a bad time in history to have kids. Maybe the future is too bleak. 

And not everyone was leaning this way, but no one challenged the premise. 

This is part of why I love this resurrection story, that it seems like times of cataclysm – when all is wrong with the world – and times of disappointment – when we’re walking away from our dreams, disappointed – are perfect times for the risen God to appear to us again. 

Let’s pick up the rest of the story. 

Luke 24:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about.

26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.

29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

Let’s look at how Jesus appears, how resurrection appears to these two friends who are walking away. 

Jesus is a little spicy with them because loving as Jesus is, he doesn’t want to nourish our dysfunction or our bad ideas. Jesus is always kind, but he is not always nice. There’s a lot in the world and if we’re honest plenty in us too that needs interrupting, and nice doesn’t interrupt very well. So Jesus takes the time to interrupt their story. 

And in this case, he’s like,

well, with what you know, walking away makes sense. But there’s a lot you don’t know.

And he goes on to tell them.

You didn’t know that suffering always had to be part of the story.

You didn’t know how long good things can take, how un-straight the road to them always is.

You didn’t know that new life usually takes some death to clear the way. 

You didn’t know.

And in the coming to terms with all they didn’t know, these two friends find room for Jesus to tell them the truth.

That’s one of the benefits of walking away. Of disillusionment, disenchantment. 

Sometimes it makes room for the truth. Sometimes it lays the ground for resurrection. 

One of the weird things about Easter is that Jesus rose in secret. No one saw it. Too dang early. (Jesus!) Whatever happened physically, scientifically, whatever the mechanics were, whatever the nature of Jesus’ risen body, no one was there for it. 

Our faith just tells us: God raised Jesus from the dead. 

But then the fun starts. The resurrected Christ appears to people as they’re hiding out or walking away. Two disappointed friends are walking away in midlife, and Jesus appears as a companion who wonders what they’re thinking. Jesus’  grieving fishermen friends are out on the lake at dawn unable to catch anything, and Jesus appears frying up fish on the beach. Two people welcome a stranger to a simple, small meal in their home, and Jesus is recognized as he breaks bread, blesses it, and offers it to them. Two friends tell a story of their disappointment, how all is lost, and Jesus appears as he offers them a better perspective and they find their hearts on fire.

That last one happened to me too. 

During that awful fall and the year beyond, a few friends walked with me and listened, good help and provision and counsel came my way. And by 2022, getting toward the end of my 40s, some things were shifting in my life, but I was still kind of stuck internally. And I noticed this as I was talking with a friend of mine.

I met up with that friend around the anniversary of that last straw conflict in 2020, which was also around the anniversary of another big trauma in my life, and I asked my friend if we could talk about it that day. And as we did, I shared with him how everyone was doing, myself included. And I was like:

things are better, but there’s so far to go, and that’s so disappointing. 

And my friend listened to me, and he let me know he understood how big this is to me, how heavy the ache is. 

But he also asked me:

can I share what I hear as you tell these stories? 

And I told him:

please do.

And he said:

it’s your life, your truth. I don’t want to tell you what to think, but what I hear are stories of resurrection. 

And he told a different story of my life than what I was seeing – same facts, but different angle. How despite suffering, this person was alive and not dead, and this relationship may be cut off but wow, how this other one was better than ever, how so many things were so much better than I could have imagined not too long ago.

And he said:

I know you hope for more, I know you hope for more but remember that when Jesus rose, he rose with scars. And you have your scars too. I see them. But a scarred resurrection life is still life, isn’t it? It’s still life. It’s a miracle. You live within a miracle.

And as he shared the truth he saw, I was tearing up because my heart was on fire with the truth of all this.

So many signs of life. The buds and shoots of resurrection blossoming everywhere. 

Because Jesus rising from the dead is not only an event in history. It’s not only the foundation of a faith in which we stand here. The resurrection of Christ is also an invitation to a new way of being in the world, where we can have reasonable faith and hope that a way will be made where there is no way. That disappointments and loss are gardens where extraordinary new things can be cultivated. That crappy year after crappy year in midlife can be an invitation to the work of renaissance. That every dying seed tucked into the ground is just waiting to burst back out with life. 

Recently, I’ve found myself with a new spiritual habit. I call it looking for signs of resurrection. Where my instincts tell me there’s no way forward, I wonder what way is going to appear. When something in me or someone I love seems lost or stuck, I’m asking God –

where can I be seeding and watering the next resurrection? 

I’m looking for stories of resurrection. Because resurrection is looking for us. 

Let’s finish our story.

Luke 24:33-36 (Common English Bible)

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!”

35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Ha, here it is again. Tell one story of resurrection, and another may be right on its tail. Jesus keeps appearing, in weird and funny ways.

My wife Grace and I heard an interview once with a strange, old fundamentalist lady who had this funny phrase she’d say. She’d say:

Jesus is a tricksy one. 

It’s a silly, weird phrase, and I have no idea what she meant, but it’s stuck with me, and now I think it’s true. Nothing Jesus says or does in the gospel’s resurrection stories is predictable. And I think the stories of new life that the Spirit of the Risen Christ is working on today aren’t predictable either. 

We call God our creator, and if the Spirit of the Risen Christ is anything, it is endlessly creative. That Jesus is a tricksy one. 

When we hit our bad days and our bad years and our walls of awful stuckness and discouragement, we don’t usually feel like new life is on the horizon. 

So even if we’re walking away, we are given tangible symbols, sacraments by which to remember Christ, and to stir faith and hope in his risen life among us.

One of these we call communion, a tiny little meal we take in worship every week, where we remember Jesus, broken out for the life of this world that we could be renewed and that we could become the body of Christ ourselves, blessed, and given for the healing of the world. 

Another of these we call baptism. We are about to have the joy of baptizing six people with water. And so a moment on what this means. What this means for these six, what it means for you if you’ve been baptized before, or if you haven’t and you want to – just let us know! – what it would mean. 

In baptism, we are welcomed into a faith of resurrection.

In baptism, the cleansing water of forgiveness and healing tells us that we are never the sum of our worst days. 

In baptism, the water which represents the Spirit of God tells us that God will be with us always, that the faithful, loving accompaniment of our God is everlasting.

And the water we go under tells us too that if we die with Christ, we will live with him. That new life after death is the pattern of our present and the destiny of our future.

We’re not promised an easy road in this life. The faith of the risen Christ doesn’t even protect us or our world for the cataclysms that come, mostly the ones our species brings upon ourselves. 

There will keep coming times we want to walk away from.

But the faith of the risen Christ assures us these times are not the end of the story but the beginning of knowing again that we live within a miracle, that our life is again a miracle of goodness, another impossibly great story we wouldn’t have seen coming. 

Pray with me.

Spirit of the Risen and kind of tricksy Christ, fall afresh on us. 

In the taking of communion, in the bearing witness to baptism, in the kind  presence of a friend, in the sharing of a simple meal, in the generosity of every hospitality, in the truth that comes to us and sets our hearts on fire, remind us that we live within a miracle, that we are a miracle, and that with the help of God, the pattern of our present and our future can always be new life. Amen.

The So-Easy-to-Miss Fire of Our Great Love Stories

For the last week of our Lenten season, the theme is the fire of love. 

Our first scripture comes from a bit of erotic poetry, right in the middle of the Bible. It’s from a book called Song of Solomon that tells a poetic coming of age erotic love story that at the same time the tradition has read as an allegorical celebration of divine love. 

The love and fire line is in this bit from the eighth chapter.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 (Common English Bible)

6 Set me as a seal over your heart,

        as a seal upon your arm,

for love is as strong as death,

        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.[b]

Its darts are darts of fire—

        divine flame!

7 Rushing waters can’t quench love;

        rivers can’t wash it away.

If someone gave

        all his estate in exchange for love,

        he would be laughed to utter shame.

Weird that love, this fiery force as strong, as unrelenting as death, has this fierce erotic longing in it. A kind of impulse in us that by itself may or may not be loving.

Weird that to talk about holy love, divine love, the biggest and deepest love in the universe, the Bible has steamy romantic poetry in it. Weird that these things would be connected. 

And weird that we all know that if someone had love, and someone else that this huge wealthy estate and tried to make a deal, everyone would laugh that person off. Who’d ever trade away a great love story? 

It’s priceless, the best thing in life.

And yet we give up, or skip out on, or even throw away great love stories all the time, all the time. 

Weird but true. 

Last week I met a woman who really wanted to show me pictures of her kid. 

I’ve done this before, tell people all about one of my kids, whether they cared or not. Probably not, but sometimes parents can’t help themselves.

Well, I met this woman because I was meeting with a small delegation of people whose friends or family members have been killed or taken hostage in the Hamas attacks on Israel in October.

She said to me and my friend:

would you like me to show you videos?

And my friend said:

would you like us to see them?

And she pulled out her phone, and we watched videos of her 22-year old son hiding in a shelter, images of her son being kidnapped and taken away, and an image of him as a small child, looking back charmingly at the camera. 

She turned to us emotionally and said:

I know he’s alive. We haven’t had proof of life in a little over two months. But I know he’s alive, and I know he’s coming home. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I know he’s coming home. 

A little part of me wanted to go political with the ensuing conversation. Wanted to ask about her about the thousands of Palestinian mothers who mourn their dead children. To ask about the Palestinian families who have no home to return to. 

But I didn’t. One, she knew. Most of the members of this delegation were leftists in Israel, no friend to their own government and its actions in Gaza and the West Bank. They knew.

But also, that wasn’t what this conversation was about. I was being asked to bear witness to the fierce grief and the fierce love of a mother, whose 22-year old son was taken hostage. 

Fierce, holy love, that says:

I know he’s coming home. And you’re welcome to visit me then and meet him. I hope you will.

Love is like this.

Love bears all things, believes all things. Love hopes all things, endures all things.

This day in the church calendar, Palm Sunday, is a weird one.

We remember Jesus and his students walking into Jerusalem, Jesus riding a donkey, the crowds waving palms and laying them down like a green carpet of welcome to the city as they cheered:

Hosanna, here is the one who will save us!

Jesus smiled. He loved the shouts and the singing.

But some part of him must have known it was kind of a fake love story.

On the other side of town, after all, the Roman governor Pilate rode into down on a battle horse, surrounded by soldiers, to bear in his body the glory of Rome, which would fill Jerusalem with its armies on big festivals, to keep the peace, so to speak, which was code for crushing dissent.

Jesus is the one they would crush this week. They would arrest him, mock him, beat him, crucify him naked on a wooden cross, with a crown of thorns atop his bleeding head. 

This day, a week earlier, Jesus had just mourned over his beloved Jerusalem. Pausing on his walk in, he had seen the cityscape before him and broke down crying: saying

– if you only knew the way of peace. But you don’t. And so the day is coming when your enemies will surround you and besiege you, and attack and utterly crush you.

He saw this vision through tears, the angry, weary tears of grief.

And now, he performed this kind of street art mockery of a king’s entrance, riding into the city unarmed, with a scrappy band of rural followers for a royal delegation, atop an old donkey, not a battle horse, determined to bring a great love story to a city consumed with fantasies of fights they could not win. 

Jesus didn’t bring the fight they were looking for.

Actually, the whole final week of Jesus’ natural life, the week we call the passion of Christ, is a week in his life filled with threats. Threats of Rome, threats of religious establishment, threats of denial and betrayal. Threat behind threat. Trauma behind trauma. 

And over and over again, the sort of script Jesus is expected to follow is the scripts we all follow in the face of trauma, threat, or even tension.

He’s expected to fight or flee – the old fight or flight syndrome for our species, for all animals.

Or he’s expected to freeze or fawn – these additions to fight and flight our psychologists help us understand. Because sometimes in the face of threats, we don’t fight, we don’t run away, we just shut down and freeze – silence, no emotion, no action. Or we fawn – we try to people please our way past the threat.

But weirdly, Jesus again and again won’t do any of these things.

No fight, no fight, no freeze, no fawn.

Just passion.

He just keeps showing up, present with his whole body, his whole self. 

And this is a great love story that no one, well almost no one, is ready for.

I’m obsessed with this TV show that ended a couple years ago, This is Us. That’s where I’m pulling this phrase “great love story” from today. Because the show uses that same phrase for the marriage at the heart of it. Jack and Rebecca have this epic, great love story, and who doesn’t like a good love story? 

I met this extraordinary woman named Grace when I was 19-years old, and she and I who later realized we are so different, at that time bonded over the sames we share – some same likes, same values, same passions, same looking for someone to welcome us into their arms just as we are, same longing for authentic in a world of fake. 

I love all this so much in Grace still. She’s stuck with me, even when I’ve mostly been a pain in the ass, and I can’t imagine anything but showing up with my whole self and sticking with her too. Because love is like that. And this imperfect but still great love story is so good. I’m so grateful.

But in many other relationships among family and friends, I’ve sometimes struggled to find my love stories there. Plenty of relationships in my life have gotten stuck or failed.

Which takes me back to This is Us. Because over time, I realized I was drawn to this show not so much by that romance as I was by all the other great love stories in it. Stories of parents and their children, stories of sisters and brothers and strangers and friends. This is Us is really about the us-ness of all of life.

It’s not easy. Misunderstanding, rivalry, addiction, conflict, even death get in the way.

And this is why great love stories are usually a little tragic too, because they usually end, by death or by some other means. Or they never even really get going the way they should because someone or another pisses them away. 

And there’s an ache that comes with that. 

It’s an ache that God shares with us, because God who is love has a great deal of experience of people doing so many other things besides living in God’s great love story for us all. So much fighting and fleeing and freezing and fawning. So little love sometimes. 

That’s part of the tragedy of the passion week of Christ. So little room for love around Jesus. 

But that’s part of why it’s so beautiful that in the passion week, there’s this great love story tucked in there that is so sacred, Jesus says that everywhere the good news of Christ travels, this story must be told.

So before we end today, let’s tell this great love story, and see if its truth, its lessons can’t rub off on us some. It’s in three of the four gospels, here in from the gospel of Mark. 

Mark 14:3-9 (Common English Bible)

3 Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume?

5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

6 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me.

7 You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me.

8 She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial.

9 I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

I have five things I’d love for us to notice.

One is that great love stories don’t have to be sexual or romantic. 

This story is sensual to be sure – this fancy vase and its gorgeous smelling perfume broke open over Jesus’ head. It’s sensual, and with other people at its center, it’s easy to see how it could have gone sexual. But it didn’t. 

Because the woman, whose name isn’t given here, and Jesus don’t let it. They’re not looking for that in each other, and they’re healthy enough in their bodies and their hearts and their self-control to not let a beautiful moment go sideways. 

In our guide this week, Ivy has brought in the wisdom of the poet Ada Limon, who’s got a love poem to her grandfather in there. Limon says there are too many love poems in the world for people who don’t deserve them.

“The bad partner gets a whole book, whereas the friend just gets a coffee.” 

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Limon’s dead grandfather gets this beautiful poem. Jesus gets the whole bottle of perfume. Its owner gets this story about her great love told throughout the world for all time. 

What great love stories has God given us – human, animal, or divine? The love of friends and family and pets and strangers and all of creation. We don’t get an infinite number of love stories to be part of, so they’re all sacred. Most of them aren’t romantic and sexual at all. But that doesn’t make them any less important. 

Two, great love stories usually break the rules a little

In this week’s guide, you get a story of me speeding through the middle of the night from New York to Massachusetts to get to Grace, who’d had a bad concussion, I had heard. She had gone to the hospital and apparently kept asking:  am I pregnant? When she never had been and also asking: who gave me the shrooms? When I’m pretty sure, at least according to her, that had never happened. Funny now, but it freaked me out. 

So I drove to see her at totally unsafe speeds. Speeds I will never be specific about. That I certainly won’t admit to my children. A law-breaking speed at which I would tell you all to never drive. Totally unsafe.

But love often breaks the rules a little.

Like here. Women don’t touch non-relative men like this in that culture. They don’t go into the inner circle of a rabbi with his students. And they certainly don’t pour perfume on their heads. But Jesus basically says:

this is what love looks like. 

She has done a good thing for me. 

This is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had in mind about Jesus when he wrote: Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. 

Not all the morals, right? Hurt someone and call it love, and you might be an abuser. Be unfaithful and call it love, and you’re a liar. 

But some of the so-called morals, some of the rules. Love is extra. You have to let it be. 

Related to this, the third thing:

Great love stories are extravagant. 

They’re impractical, wasteful, extravagant. The men here are arguing about this. They’re upset. What a waste. A year’s earnings wasted in this extravagant gesture. We could have done something more valuable. 

And Jesus is like:

you’re right, but you’re wrong. There’s time for value, there’s time for practical. There is. But not every time. 

Love isn’t practical. It may or may not be strategic. But we’ll die without it. 

I was at that event I mentioned this week, with the delegation of those whose family or friends had been killed or taken hostage, because a friend I love had invited me. This friend is a prominent Jewish leader, in their own way. And we show up with our friends. 

I don’t always agree with this friend, and certainly not with some of this friend’s allies and partners in public life. I think the militarism and aggression and the illusion that might ever makes right is always foolhardy. And so whether it be the military violence of Israel or of Hamas or most dominantly in the world, of my own country, I tend to mourn and protest and say with Jesus – as I personally discern the way of Jesus at least – this is not the way of peace.

My friend has told me before:

this is not practical when your enemies are trying to destroy you. What does love get you then?

And I don’t know. I’m not a politician a foreign policy expert or anything, but I dream of what a politics of extravagant love might look like. I wonder what national defense strategies and budgets of extravagant love might look like, because I believe the words of the scriptures that say that love can triumph over evil, and we are to overcome evil with good. 

Away from national defense and politics and all, if we want to be part of great love stories, we have to embrace extravagance. What it means to let someone give us more than we deserve or are comfortable receiving – more praise, more attention, more kindness, more help. And we have to get comfortable turning the dial way up on how to give those to others – bigger compliments, more wasteful presents, deeper encouragement. Longer, fuller, wholehearted presence. 

We can’t do that in every moment. We’re people, not God. But if we never do it, or if we rarely do it, we’ll be like that person that takes the estate, that takes money and time, and stuff instead of love. And how foolish would that be!

Fourthly, great love stories take whole-body, whole-hearted presence.

This big crowd of friends is getting ready for the Passover meal we’ll come to know as the Last Supper. And you know what happens with big dinners for friends and family, people are talking and arguing about all kinds of things. 

Where are they going to eat?

Who brought this or that dish or supply?

Old arguments show up, in this case about what’s worth spending money on. 

And one person, one person has the presence of heart to see the most important thing going on – that Jesus is about to die, and that this is a time to love him.

That’s how Jesus interprets this moment. That one person had the presence of heart and the courage of action to anoint him for burial, to prepare him for his death. 

When you know you are loved, like you really, really know it, you can do hard things. And so Jesus says that wherever his good news goes, what she has done will be told. In memory of her.

This is what love looks like. The courage to show up to people, to gatherings, to wherever we can with our hearts open, with our emotions accessible, with the courage to say and do what love looks like, best as we see it. 

There’s no rulebook for this. Not really.

Just keep wanting to learn what love looks like. Pay attention. And have the courage to go for it. 

Lastly, great love stories are windows into the truest truth of the universe, that God is love and that we are all the subjects of undying, extravagant longing and affection. 

This love is a last parable of the good news of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. 

It’s a thing that happened, and it’s also a story of what love looks like. See others with whole-hearts, and acting extravagantly for their wellness and the wellness of everyone involved too. Seeding another great love story. 

Some of us hear this talk with a sense of the relationships and the communities where we can live it. We know where our love stories lie, or at least we think we do, and I hope we are invited to the giving and receiving of love harder, deeper, fiercer. 

Some of us are lonely or heartbroken, though, and we’re maybe not even sure where our love stories can be playing out right now. 

Friends, I hope that you know that today you are one of the objects of God’s great love story, that the full attention of our Mother and Father of God is yours with delight and affection, hopeful that you can know just how valuable you are God, and hopeful that you can find your next great love stories as well. 

Great Fire of Love we call God, 

Everlastingly Broken, poured out, offering abundant love to all creation, 

Give us the tenderness, the zeal, the courage, the hope to love deep and full, and the courage to love again.

A Life Most Fully Alive

Alright, friends, this week we leave the fires of danger, hell, and judgment behind and return to another version of where we started in this season of Lent: God is like fire, and that is actually good news for our lives. 

If we think of a fiery person, we may think of an especially passionate person, or an angry or loving or fierce or intense person. But it is certainly not someone sleepwalking through life. 

Let’s wonder this week about what our version of a life most fully alive might look like. Perhaps a life aflame with passion or energized by beauty and goodness. The God who is like fire does not want to burn us up or make us smaller, harder, or more afraid. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, life abundantly. I wonder what a more abundant life looks like for us all, a life that is larger without ever taking space from someone else, a life that is freer while also focused, a life where our uniquely most loving selves shine bright like stars. 

Can you try something with me?

Think about someone you know about, or that you know personally, who seems fully alive. A life radiant with energy, beauty, goodness. 

  • Who comes to mind?
  • What are they like? 
  • If you know, how did they get there?

The people I think of are not heroes, they are not perfect, if there is such a thing. They are human, but they are perfectly wonderful humans. 

I think of a monk I know. He lives a life bound by many restrictions – vows of poverty and chastity. He is also radiantly present, kind, and insightful. He laughs and smiles and tears up easily. He listens well, tells the truth fiercely and graciously. He encourages people in ways that uplift and empower us. A focused life, a limited one, but also large, free, so good. 

I think of a public school teacher I know who, like most teachers, moves through her days filled with unpredictably chaotic and disordered people and situations and bureaucracy. But she’s also set two of my kids on fire with her work in their lives. She asks really deep questions. She pushes young intellects, keeps her hobby of drumming in a punk rock band going through busy seasons of teaching and parenting. And day after day, she offers passion and presence and grace to her community. Young people like my kids are learning justice and forgiveness, careful thinking and attention to detail, greater hope in themselves and their world through their relationships with her. It’s so beautiful. Her life is beautiful. 

I think of stories I’ve known of elders who visit with their spouses daily, even when their partners no longer remember their names. Their faithful presence, their perseverance in love keeps them and their spouse afloat in what could otherwise be a season of despair. The rest of us wonder at their grace as we learn more about what love looks like. 

Friends, what does your life look like when it’s aflame? Who are you, on fire? 

It has been said that many of us spend enough time thinking about ourselves as descendants but not enough time considering ourselves as ancestors. 

From dust we come and to dust we go. We are limited by our genetics, our circumstances, by all the places – good and bad – that we come from. And we’re limited by the brevity of our mortal lives. We are earth, not fire. And yet we may not wonder enough about the full possibilities of our lives when we are most inspired and set alight by the living, life-giving God. 

Maybe there are still stunning ancestor stories in the making within even us. 

What do our lives look like when they are aflame? Who are we, on fire?

Hear the words of the good news of Jesus. This is a weird and wonderful story, called the transfiguration, from the gospel of Luke.

Luke 9:28-36 (Common English Bible)

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray.

29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning.

30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him.

31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.

32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.

33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying.

34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.

35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!”

36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.

I don’t know what your reaction is to hearing this, friends, or hearing it again. What a strange story. So weird and wonderful. No wonder they’re all speechless. What do you say?

I have no idea what happened up on that mountain. 

We know that it was like nothing the disciples had ever seen. Jesus looks like he’s spotlit from the heavens, just ablaze with light. And they see visions of two of the greatest fathers or mothers of their culture, their faith. The great prophets Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 

It seems like this maybe happened late at night, or maybe at sunrise after they’d been hiking through the night, I don’t know. But it feels like a religious, a mystical experience, so Peter’s like:

I think we should build a shrine, right? 

But then clouds blow through, and they hear God saying, Shutup, Peter. Just kidding, doesn’t actually say that, even if God maybe thinks it for a moment. No, the voice is like:

Jesus is my kid. The one and only. Listen to him. 

Again, no wonder they are speechless. 

The tradition around this text tends to focus on all this scene is meant to tell us about Jesus – how special and wise and important Jesus is, how he too was destined to be among the great leaders of his culture and faith, how like Moses and Elijah, his legacy would not end with his life but would resound for generations, even hinting that Jesus would rise in glory after his death, as we will celebrate in two weeks on Easter Sunday.

And clearly, this mountaintop moment was a big moment, this epic day in the life of Jesus, when his followers and we by their testimony see him most aflame, most fully alive, most revealed for all he is. 

So it’s a weird and wonderful story about Jesus.

But in the Eastern tradition of the Christian faith, the Orthodox tradition, this transfiguration of Christ, isn’t just a story about Jesus, it’s a story about all of us too. 

The Orthodox church teaches that this illumination of Jesus also gives us a glimpse of the transformed state which followers of Jesus will reach in the life to come, and sometimes in part, in this life.

The word for this is theosis, which means deification, or divinization, the process by which we mortal humans become like Christ, where we too become humans who fully embody the glory of God. 

The second century bishop Irenaeus wrote,

“The glory of God is a human fully alive.”

Some people pull this quote out of context as they think about chasing the adrenaline of adventure, like a Red Bull cliff jumping contest. That’s cool, if it’s for you. The thrill of intense experiences can certainly make us feel fully alive, and maybe there’s something of the glory of God we taste in that.

Irenaeus didn’t mean less than this but he did mean more than this. He was writing about Jesus, that in the most fully alive human of Jesus we see God’s glory. But he was doing so inviting both our worship and our participation. He was inviting us to notice how large, how free, how beautiful Jesus is, because he was so fully human and so in touch with the love and purposes of God in every moment. And he was encouraging us to imagine for ourselves and our species a pattern of imitating Christ in this, in our own ways. With the help of God, and with our faith and cooperation, we too can be transfigured. We too have the possibility of being humans most fully alive, transformed from glory to glory, as it were.

This is our best chance at becoming the ancestor people tell stories about after we are gone.

It’s our way toward being the person who comes to mind when someone else is asked:

Who do you know that is most fully alive? 

Let’s think about how this happens, 

First, we’ve got to wake up. 

I think it’s interesting that the text says Peter, James, and John almost missed this moment – we never would have heard about it either – because they just about fell asleep. 

Maybe they’d been hiking all night and just needed a nap.

But maybe it’s easy to sleep our way through some of what’s most important in life. It’s easy to sleepwalk through life in a way, isn’t it?

I was hanging out with a couple of friends this week. And one of them was talking about how he kind of lost it last week after a particularly bad day. He was a little sheepish when he talked about his reaction, like why did I shut down so much? And another one of the friends was like:

hold on, think about all you’ve been through the past few years. Think about how much we’ve all been through the past few years.

And he started naming some of the things we’ve shared about in our circle the past few years – health problems, family crises, impossibly difficult issues at work. But not just our private stuff, but some of the things we’ve all been through by just being alive the past few years – pandemic, and lock down, and bearing witness to threat after threat, violence after violence. He was like:

It’s been a lot. No wonder that you’re tired. No wonder that your tank is empty sometimes. 

Some of us are tired, aren’t we?

Maybe your tank feels empty too. And so you’re just sputtering along. Or sometimes over-reactive to a new problem or a bump in the road. 

The weight of the past is heavy. As we hold our past in our bodies, and receive it again and again in our memories, it’s really easy to assume that the past is always prelude. That the future is going to play out just the same. 

Marjorie Suchocki is a theologian and philosopher I appreciate, who I got to meet online at a conference I was presenting at last month. She talks about how the weight of our past can feel so unchangeable that it becomes demonic. She doesn’t mean that in a spooky, exorcist kind of way, but in the literal sense of that word – accusing, a weight of heavy resignation and despair that there isn’t a better way ahead, that the worst ruts we’re in are just going to stay the way they are or sink deeper.

This happens to us, it happens to me – that our most pressing discouragements and intractable difficulties – personally, collectively – we just get stuck, we feel like things can not change. And we need help to imagine another possibility. 

We need the help of God and friends to interrupt this sleepwalking, stuck in a rut, despairing way of passing our lives. 

It’s a waking up to new possibilities. 

It’s a remembering of what we know from investing, that past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. The future is unwritten.

It’s a hope that what the scriptures say is true, that the steadfast love of God is new every morning. Every morning, the steadfast love of God is coming our way anew.

One great way to wake up to love and hope and possibility is through wonder and worship. Wonder and worship.

Peter, James, and John are falling asleep when they catch Jesus out of the corner of their eyes and he’s bathed in sunlight. His clothes, his face look aflame like lightning.

I don’t think they’re sleepy anymore. 

And then even when they try to analyze or control the moment – Peter is like,

hey religious moment, let’s make a shrine,

but the voice of God is like:

actually, hold on, you’re kind of right, Peter, but there’s more. There’s more. Just listen. Keep listening. Pay attention.

These same sleepy fishermen, who have themselves been battered by life, and who in the gospels say and do the stupidest things, keep walking with Jesus. They keep listening. They stick around. And in time, with the help of God and one another, it catches. Their lives are set aflame with passion and purpose. They become the dwelling places for God Peter dreamed of building that morning. They become the leaders of the first century Jesus movement, which is to become one of the largest, most influential movements in human history. 

They are some of the spiritual ancestors that get us all in this room today. 

This is why I pray when I do, in my own personal devotional life. And it’s why I come to church too, to get help waking up as I wonder and worship, knowing this is going to make my life larger, freer, and more loving.

Sometimes it’s in the music, when I’m singing with you all and it gets into my heart that the creator God of the universe calls us friends. 

Sometimes it’s in the taking of communion, when I eat and drink and I remember that God shares everything with us all – love, forgiveness, adoption, second chances, everything. Or I look around at you all beautiful people and think I really am part of this community of love and hope that we call the body of Christ. 

Sometimes in a sermon or a moment of prayer, a word will come to me, a word that feels like truth and sounds like freedom. A week and a half ago, I was sleep walking my way through a wall of stress, just gripped more each day by worry and a sense of doom over one piece of my world I really care about. 

And it came to my mind or soul or spirit – whatever you want to call that deep center of ourselves – that God knew it all, that God was intimate with my concerns and stress, and intimately held the object of my stress too. None of us are alone, none of us cut off, we are all connected to the caring compassion of an ever present Spirit we call God. 

And that broke the stress, broke it entirely. And that’s held.

Wonder and worship open us up. They open us up to the steadfast love of God, in all of today’s new forms. They help us wake up.

Now I want to acknowledge that as much as I encourage worship of the God we meet in the face of Jesus, there are ways that wonder and worship reach people who aren’t religious, or aren’t interested in the Way of Jesus.

It can be nature, art, unexpected or profound kindness, an experience of God or of love that is mediated through any form. And it can do this too. God can come to us through many means. 

There’s science to this too, this awakening that comes through wonder and worship. Sometimes it’s called the science of awe. How apprehending vastness or beauty or kindness interrupts us, wakes us up, kind of stops us in our tracks and widens our gaze, widens our hearts. 

Awe takes us outside of ourselves for a moment. It breaks our sleepy, doomsy rhythms. And then if we can really let it in – not analyze it or control it or walk away from it – but let the awe take hold, we can come back to ourselves with more calmness and compassion. This has been measured. 

Trying new things, paying mindful attention to whatever moment we are in so we notice whatever kindness or beauty might appear, even noticing and admiring the moral beauty of others. All these things bring wonder, they produce awe – and that calms us, deepens us, extends our lives – lights us up. 

So for our lives aflame, we’ve got to wake up, to wonder and worship, and lastly, to welcome. To welcome.

To welcome the life that we are in. And to welcome a larger, freer, more loving version of that same life. 

Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountaintop. They have to. They have lives to live, people to see, work to do. We all have to come down from the mountaintop, into the mundane and sometimes disappointing realities of our lives. 

But what if we can welcome our life a little more each day, not as we want it to be but just as it is? Because our transfiguration, our joining Jesus in becoming the glory of a human being most fully alive is going to happen in our lives as they are. Not in a fantasy version of our life where everything is better, but in our life as it is today. 

So we welcome the good stuff, and we welcome the mess, and we welcome things just as they are today, in the hope that this is good enough for God, good enough for us, good enough for fire. 

And then we welcome the largest, freest, most loving version of that life we can. This is language we’ve been quoting from James Baldwin in this season, that a God worth worshiping is one that will make us larger, freer, more loving versions of ourselves. 

Some of the ways of our lives don’t do that. We play by old rules in our family systems. Or we play capitalism’s rules – thinking our funds or our success define our worth. Or just working and working and working and then when we’re not working, letting big tech corporations make money off of our data and our weary attentions. Baldwin said that when we assimilate to racist, capitalist, violent, white world that is much of mainstream society, it’s being integrated into a burning house. 

There are plenty of ways of living we can welcome that won’t make us larger, freer, and more loving. 

In the way of Jesus, we’re invited back to our own lives rejecting and resisting all this. We’re invited to the purifying power of God within us and in our communities to resist or transform everything there that is small, hard, unfree, and unloving. And instead, we’re encouraged to admire what is best and most beautiful in the world, God included. For we become what we worship. And to welcome whatever vision God gives us of a larger, freer, more loving life, that we can be filled with all the fullness of God, shining with our light and the light of God, growing into the ancestors our future world depends upon.

I want to end by a bit from Ada Limon’s poem “Dead Stars” you’ll find in this week’s guide.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
  of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
  what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
  We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
    No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
            if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds…

Let’s pray. 

Light of Christ, Fire of God, burn in me, shine through me. 

Light of Christ, Fire of God, burn in us, shine through us.

That we too could experience and manifest the glory of God in a life most alive. 

Five Thoughts About Hell

Hey, Friends,

Good to be with you all again. I was preaching last Sunday at Great Road Church in Acton. They’re friends of ours who are connecting with us through the post-evangelical collective. So greetings from out West! And I’m glad to be back with you all exploring our theme of God and us and our world on fire. 

I wonder if you’ve heard the story of Carlton Pearson. He died late last year. Before that, though, he was a fascinating Christian minister made famous by an equally fascinating Atheist storyteller. Twenty years ago, Carlton Pearson was the subject of a full-length podcast from Ira Glass on This American Life. It was so gripping it became a feature film called Come Sunday. 

And the story that the podcast and film tell is how this pastor of a 5,000 person Pentecostal megachurch lost it all – his colleagues, his career, the church he led, even his marriage. And it wasn’t because of an affair or embezzlement or anything else like that. For the people in Pearson’s circles, it was something worse. Based on his experiences of God, and based upon the words of the Bible, he stopped believing in hell. Was he a heretic? A visionary? Something else? 

We knew this Lent that when we talked about fire in church, and encouraged us to sit around fires and wonder about God and life, for some of us, the first and last thing that would come to mind is whatever we’ve been taught or wondered about hell fire. 

For others of us like me who weren’t raised on threats of hell, we may or may not think much about it. But still, hell is a huge part of the history and legacy of the Christian faith. It casts a big shadow over the reactions to this faith still, for believers and non-believers alike. And if you read the stories and teachings of Jesus, as we always invite you to do, you’ll see that now and then Jesus talks about something like hell. What is it? And why does Jesus talk about it? 

So today I’m going to give a sermon on hell. I checked – it’s my third sermon on hell in the past few years. I never thought I’d become a hellfire preacher, but here we are. I think the other two sermons are good, maybe more than enough, but third time’s a charm, so here we go.

I’m going to share five thoughts about hell. 

And we’ll start with one of the places where it seems like Jesus is talking about it, as he does a number of times.

Mark 9:45-48 (Common English Bible)

45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet.

46, 47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.

48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.

This whole cut off your foot, cut out your eye teaching shows up in different places in the gospels. Elsewhere, it’s applied to lust – how you look at and think about and touch people you’re sexually attracted to but aren’t in committed relationship with. And Jesus argues that learning self-control is pivotal to a good life and good relationships. Sex is good, but we’re not safe sexual creatures without self-control. 

Here in Mark, though, it’s not about sex, but about hurting kids, and Jesus is like:

get any help you need, any therapy, any limits so that this will not happen. 

Because the consequences are grave. He’s like:

enter God’s kingdom or get thrown into hell.

And just to shake the imagination a bit, Jesus is like

hell, you know, that place where the worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. That’s the kind of hell child abusers face. So don’t. 

  • What in the world is Jesus talking about? 
  • What did Pastor Carlton Pearson get in so much trouble for not talking about anymore? 
  • What and where in the world is hell?

You ready?

Alright:

Hell is a place on earth

At first, from this teaching, you wouldn’t think it was any place at all. When Jesus talks about cutting off parts of your own body, he’s clearly using metaphor. There was an early church father who literally castrated himself to comply with this teaching of Jesus about cutting off parts of yourself, and he lived to regret it. He was like: don’t do that. It’s a metaphor. I take his word for it.

So if Jesus’ advice on self-control and getting help to be safer, healthier people, then maybe his warning for the horrible things that will happen to you if you abuse kids is a metaphor too. After all, we do know that without deep healing work, the lives of both abused children and the adults who abuse them can become living hells. 

But we know that Jesus’ metaphor for the consequences of are harm-doing aren’t totally abstract, because the word he says isn’t actually “hell,” it’s the word Gehenna, which isn’t really a word at all, it’s a place. Ge-henna, or the Valley of Hinnom, in Jerusalem. 

And that gruesome image Jesus says that this is a place where the worms never die and the fire keeps burning, he didn’t make that up either. He’s quoting the last verse of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew scriptures, where people who persist in organizing their lives against the justice and peace of God will end up mass graves in this valley, victims of their own wars and moral chaos. 

Friends, I’ve been to Gehenna. It is and always has been an awful place. 

So still now, if you can get to Jerusalem, you can go to hell. You find the top of this narrow but lush green valley of olive trees. At the top of it, there’s this space for seasonal outdoor music festivals for middle class and wealthy Jewish youth. It’s like the Israeli version of a hip hangout spot in Somerville. 

But then you descend down a steep, poorly paved road, as I did on foot when I was in Jerusalem. And conditions deteriorate. You pass an old graveyard, you pass a little monastery that marks the cite where the disciple Judas killed himself in despair after betraying Jesus. You pass the spots of ancient mass graves and spots of child sacrifice, and old dumping grounds for burning trash and corpses. Toward the bottom of the valley, you still see more trash than people. When I was there, I peeked behind a crumbling brick wall and saw a fly-covered, gutted corpse of a sheep lying on the ground. 

And then at the very bottom of the valley is a working class Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, across a no-man’s land barrier where I was rebuked for running to, where it’s apparently not safe for Jews or Muslims or outsiders like myself to go. 

Gehenna then and now is a spot of enmity, death, fear, and decay. It’s where trash and corpses and the best human dreams of progress and peace go to die. 

And Jesus, wise and teacher and healer that he was, tells the truth about it to his contemporaries in ancient Israel and Palestine. He says:

don’t get healthy, live the life of a fool, and this is where you’ll end up. But you don’t have to. Don’t let this happen.

Hell is a place on earth. Don’t go there. 

Now by the time of Jesus, after centuries of relative disinterest in the afterlife in ancient Judaism, more and more people were wondering how the mercy and justice and faithfulness of God would play out beyond the grave for us all. So sometimes in the times Jesus lived and taught, people would use Gehenna as a metaphor for consequences and suffering we might face beyond this life. And we’ll get back to that in a few minutes.

But first, most primarily, hell is a place on earth. 

But it’s not just one place. It stands for many places. Second point: 

Hell is many places on earth

Jesus warns us about the consequences of hurting kids. I’m going to keep this general, but I knew a child abuser when I was a kid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back he was coming into adulthood as a lonely, miserable, broken young man. It took a while before it all caught up with him. He did a world of hurt in kids’ lives before he was caught, but for the past 30-35 years, he’s been in and out of prison, living a pathetic, miserable, small life. It’s tragic.

Now, when I was in hell a couple years ago, running through Gehenna on foot, I didn’t see him there. Because he was in a state prison in Massachusetts. He wasn’t magically transported to a mass grave in Gehenna, because his living hell is a state prison here, where he is confined because he’s been unable to get well. 

Hell is many places on earth. 

It’s prison. 

It’s neighborhoods in our cities and countrysides, where generations of poverty and racial oppression, and class segregation, and bad education and bad environmental stewardship have created whole ecosystems of isolation and despair and no opportunity.

Hell right now is Gaza in Palestine, which for years has been a kind of large open prison, where millions of people are penned in in isolation and poverty not for any crimes of their own, but because of generations of displacement and dispute and repeated vicious cycles of violence that in the past five months, have been playing out more brutally and with more death and suffering than we have seen in generations if ever. 

And now to live in Gaza is to live in hell, where people are sick and hungry and terrified. It’s a picture of the anti-vision of the commonwealth or beloved community of God, where plowshares are turned into swords, and where children suffer from and study and make war. 

I even write in our guide this week about unhappy households and unhappy families as their own kind of living hell. When in our supposedly safest, most intimate communities, we can not really see and hear one another, where we can’t face the truths of our own life and of one another with love and compassion, the isolation and heartache and resentment that grows there is its own kind of living hell too.

I actually agree with Carlton Pearson that there isn’t some place where God tortures people for all eternity with worms and fire. If that’s what we mean by hell, it’s not an idea worthy of God or of us, but I think Pearson and others make a mistake when they say that means there’s no such thing as hell. There is. Jesus warned us about it and wants to help rescue us from it. 

But tragically, there are many hells on earth, at least in this life, maybe in the life to come. On that note, two points about hell in the afterlife.

Hell as eternal punishment for the wicked is fear-mongering spiritual violence and abuse

Friends, I’ve been gentler about my perspective on this in the past, but more and more, I feel like some things have to be said strong and plain.

The Christian doctrine of hell as a place where God tortures God’s enemies for eternity is maybe the most harmful, dangerous, damaging doctrine in the history of the church. 

Early in the 14th century, an Italian writer published the epic poem Divine Comedy, and the first part stuck in our imaginations. Set during the season of Lent, a man who has lost his way in mid-life is guided through nine layers of hell beneath the surface of the earth. There, unrepentant sinners suffer eternally and without hope. Heretics lie in burning coffins. Murderers perpetually drown in rivers of boiling blood. This brutalish, frightening tour through the underworld is meant to shake the conscience and protect the believer from going astray. 

Dante may have had some of his geology right. The earth does get hotter as you go deeper, thousands of degrees hot at the center! But his theology missed the mark badly. By placing fear rather than love at the center of Christian religion, Dante and his many imitators have shaped God in the image of the most controlling and violent tyrants. And they have incentivized anxious, obedient compliance in the church while weaponizing judgment against Muslims, Jews, indigenous people, and all manner of people the church has labeled dangerous or deviant. 

This imaginative vision of an angry God with a violent, fiery hell seems to burn brightest in the imaginations of believers who are afraid and go to war.

Here’s a quote from friend of Reservoir Brian McLaren on this: 

“Fear is one of the earliest childhood associations with fire. We all remember warnings from parents and adults to keep away from the fire. Fire is dangerous and will burn you; play with fire and you will get burned. The church has often used this fear of fire to very destructive effect. This was done in two ways. Firstly, so-called heretics and witches were burned to death at the stake. Secondly, the church colonized the minds of its subjects with fearful visions and threats of hell and purgatory.” (Should I Stay Christian, p. 108)

And here’s one from the late pastor Carlton Pearson:

“I do believe in hell as a state of being or consciousness, and I believe that people can dwell in hell and that many do, right now, today, on this earth before rather than after death. I will argue … that hell is the most erroneous, outdated, misunderstood, and misguided dogma in all of Christianity, and the one that must be discarded if this spiritual tradition is to survive as anything more than a contemptible curiosity…. Hell was never God’s intention. It is man’s invention.”

This kind of hell is used to control and hurt people. Jesus says that it is the enemies of God who come to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus comes that we may have abundant life. This vision of hell has got to go.

But is there any kind of hell in the afterlife? 

Well, we don’t know. We actually don’t know much about the afterlife, do we, since none of us has been there. But I can say this: 

If there is a hell in the afterlife, we can hope there are ways out.

If there is any hell in the afterlife, we can hope there are ways out.

Before Dante’s Inferno, if people believed in a place of fiery punishment in the afterlife, they likely got the idea from the final book in the Bible, Revelation.

Revelation is a weirdly told story of the great evil of human empires and great, faithful love of God. 

On the evil of human empires, you get lots of fire image, lots of stuff like this, from the 9th chapter:

Revelation 9:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 The number of cavalry troops was two hundred million. I heard their number.

17 And this is the way I saw the horses and their riders in the vision: they had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The horses’ heads were like lions’ heads, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur.

18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed: by the fire, smoke, and sulfur coming out of their mouths.

This is one of Revelation’s pictures of evil unleashing hell. God sees it, God doesn’t stop it, either because there’s some greater timing we don’t understand or because God can’t. 

But if we’ve paid any attention to this history or the current news about the war and violence and suffering that large nations unleash, we know what this looks like. John the revelator is telling the truth about the horrible evil powerful nations unleash beneath their propaganda of peace and prosperity. 

But Revelation’s vision is also anchored in the hope that a beautiful and wise Jesus, once slain on a Roman cross, still lives as the resurrected Lamb of God and Prince of Peace.

And in Revelation, there’s a hope that there is a place where all the bad things go, so they will haunt and plague us no more. Near the end of the book, in Chapter 20, this is visualized as a giant pit of fire. 

Now it does say that people who aren’t in God’s book of life go there, and that’s a hard, complex line to wrestle with. But we should read that in light of what comes before and after. Because mostly, people aren’t going there at all.

What goes into the pit are big realities and systems of evil that live beyond any one particular person. Accusation goes into the pit of fire. Lies go there. Violence goes there. Death and the grave themselves are swallowed up in a fiery defeat. It’s not a place to punish people, it’s a place to vanquish evil, it’s a place where all the bad things go. 

This is an image of the judgment of God. Some of the ancient texts make that sound like punishment of particular people, but we can be convinced that because God is love, all of God’s judgment is ultimately restorative, not punitive. The judgment of God exposes and heals. God’s judgment is truth telling about lies and harm and evil, so that all that stuff can get burned out of our human story and we can be transformed. Out of love for the harmed and the harm doer, out of love for the victim and the victimizer.

So when horrible violence or disasters happen on earth, I never speculate whether or not they are God’s judgment, and I’d ask you not to as well. But when the truth about bad things gets told, when exposure of evil and harm occurs, I do think this is in part the judgment of the living God, that healing could come.

And if that kind of judgment extends beyond this life in some way that we can not predict and understand, we can hope that it is not the end of the story. After all, in the next and final chapters of Revelation, as a new Jerusalem is described, as a symbol for a renewed heaven and earth, there are trees whose leaves are good for the healing of the nations, and there are gates which shall never be shut. 

We don’t always see it in this life, but the faith of Jesus dares us to hope that God’s mercy is wider than God’s judgment, that God’s healing is deeper than our evil, and that love is stronger than hate, that love is even stronger than death. 

This takes us right to the final point, friends, that:

God is better worshiped as a firefighter, not a fire starter.

When we think about hell, or when we think as Ivy had us do last week about all the suffering and hardship we face in this life, it doesn’t do any good to imagine that God is somehow starting all those fires. That thought’s mostly not worthy of a loving God.

Instead, friends, we can put our hope in God whose arm is strong to save, in God who isn’t the great fire-starter, but the great firefighter. 

We’ll have an opportunity to hold in worship in just a moment any ways we see or face fires of suffering in this life. We hold those to God in hope for God’s help, for God’s strength and perseverance for all facing the fire, and for God’s help in putting out those fires.

And I encourage us to wonder together, throughout this week using our Lenten guide, and now together as well:

I wonder what you see in our land that is against the loving, renewing, restorative, and just purposes of Jesus for Beloved Community? How do we spiritually and otherwise resist whatever sin and death harms us all? 

I wonder what dangers you feel you are prone to? What does resisting that look like for us? .

I wonder what dangers our cultures and countries are prone to? What does interrupting all that look like for us? 

This week: Each morning or evening, light a candle. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, you could even safely light a fire. By yourself, or with a friend or your family, take a few moments to watch the flame. Imagine the flame as representing whatever in you or around you is suffering or causing ripples of harm. 

WONDER

What will put out the fire? What is your part? What help do you need?