walls of jericho

July 23, 2014

war is here, and war is there,

and we don’t see the similarity.

planes are shot down from the sky,

and nations call on armored cavalry.

or we cast aside the children

who come hands out to our shore.

oops, we don’t call that war anymore.

 

people living in the streets,

people dying to be king.

wars rage from every boardroom

and the profit is the thing.

yes, we’d kill to have a good year,

and then raise the price on air.

please, keep your eyes on wars over there.

 

* there’s an armory, and we have different weapons of choice.

  but for the life of me, i don’t know why we don’t give voice

  to the need of peace for love, and the need of love for all.

  wage peace, and let the walls of jericho fall!

 

building up our defenses

is like taking on a mask.

“we’re not as tender as we feel”

“we don’t tell, so don’t ask.”

and for those who are not like us

we have less patience to spare.

you, . . . just take your problems over there.

some of those people living on the street

are the same ones who never knew defeat

fighting our wars and carrying the action.

i’m not saying they’re any better,

i’m just saying we’re all in this together.

and the least we owe any person is compassion.

for all time, the words of God have broken every barrier down.

but only if we’ll hear them, only if we’ll make the sound

reverberate within us deep, to our hearts of stone.

our walls are shells that only leave us all alone.

 

waging peace is the answer

and love’s the weapon to bear.

and our general gives His life

to free all people, everywhere.

every person wants the same things,

and we can have that happiness

if we’ll live the kinds of life that God can bless. *

Seeing Past the Snow (Romans 8:10-11 and Isaiah 55:10 -13)

July 8, 2014

daylilies

Isaiah 55:10 -13 — For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

 

Romans 8:10-11 —  But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

 

Some years ago, when I was living right up against the mountains, we had an awful lot of snow.  We had about two feet of snow on a Thursday and Friday.  Then, less than a week later we had ten or so more inches on top of that.  There were some other flurries and things, and at one point, just outside my door, i measured 38 inches of snow — a thick white quilt that covered everything.

It seemed like it would never all  go away.

But, of course, it did.  The snow melted and the grass and flowers grew in its place.  In fact, at that same spot by my back door I had some daylilies that grew to just exactly the same height that the snow had been.  For some reason, I marvelled at that.  The lilies and the snow seemed connected — related somehow.  I didn’t know just what this relationship was.  I couldn’t see it or discern it or hope to describe it.  But I could sort of feel it.

Sometimes, our faith is calling us to feel things we have no discernible reason to feel.  Also,, our faith asks us to believe in connections we cannot see, and to take part in relationships that we can not fully know or describe.

Here in Isaiah, God is telling us that His Word goes out into the world.  I believe that He is telling us that He is always attempting to sow relationships and to make them fruitful.  He is working at that right now with you and with me, whether we see this happening or not.

This is one way of putting the meaning of faith:  God is . . . whether we see Him at work or not.  God is giving Himself to us . . . whether we feel His presence or not.  God is love and grace . . . whether we are feeling beloved and graced . . . or not.

So, across the centuries, Isaiah tells us that even in the times when all we see and feel are thorns and briers, God is with us.  And God is turning thorns into smooth, strong cypress, and turning briers into graceful, sweet-smelling myrtle.  Remember when we as believers are told to bring the mountains down low and make the crooked road straight?  I believe these words in Isaiah suggest that God has already offered these gifts to us.  He has given each of us that possibility of straight roads to come after the most painful ones, and the hope of easy roads to walk after the steepest ones.

The trick to it all is that we must answer what the Lord has done for us with all we can do for Him.  It isn’t much really — just three things.  We can offer Him praise.  We can believe despite all the “evidence” of life that tells us not to believe.  And we can live out those beliefs by following His ways.  This is the way Isaiah puts it:  You shall go out in joy — that’s living with a praiseful spirit.  You shall be led back in peace — that’s living in the assurance that a living, loving God really is with us, and not just a concept or a nice story from the past.  And the hills before you will burst into song and the trees along your way will clap your hand — that is saying that if you live in faith, believing in God’s grace for you even when it is not yet seen, good and encouragement will surround you.

The daylilies by my side door all those years ago existed when that snow was on the ground.  Those seeds were unseen down there in the ground somewhere the fleshy roots and they were soaking up moisture and preparing to grow.  That winter, I wouldn’t have believed they were coming because all I could see around me was snow.  Living in faith not only means believing in flowers when they are mere roots underground, but also enjoying their beauty and living in the gratitude this beauty brings.

Paul uses this same line of logic to talk about what it means to be Christian.  He is teaching people in churches all around — here, mostly people who didn’t have a background in Jewish culture or faith — what changes faith in Christ is meant to bring in believers.  He tells us that the Spirit takes us away from the dead, unpromising life that is all humanity has.  If we believe, Paul says, God will bring a new life into our mortal bodies.  He means an unquenchable fire, an unbeatable spirit.

This is what God offers us for this life — we can be unbeatable.  We have a Spirit-given life dwelling in us, and that is a power that our world can not defeat.  Blessed assurance, therefore, must be part of our everyday lives.  We must live out a reality where we not only trust in the flowers to come while the snow is on the ground, but we share the joy of those flowers with others who are also stuck in the snows of this world.

If a wildflower can come up and thrive after a long hard winter, why can’t we — God’s special projects — have new life even after the worst moments?  God is constantly offering new grace and new life to us.  So whatever the past is, there is hope for new and wonderful things in the future.

I know this is easier to say than to believe.  But this is what the Bible offers us — new life!  We don’t have to be dragged down by the same old behaviors and errors and dreadful moments.  If we are going to SAY we have Christian faith, then shouldn’t we at least take part in the benefits of that faith?  Yes, new life, great assurance, and constant hope are ours for the taking!  All we need is to be able to see past the blizzard of weights and distractions the world throws at us and keep our eyes upon God and our hearts with Him as well.

“The Life He Lives, He Lives to God”

June 22, 2014

Lectionary reading for 6/22 — Romans 6:1-11

 

I am going to focus today on one verse, half of one verse, in fact.  Keep in mind the full reading.  We may find our study on Romans 6:10 shines light on the rest of the passage.  We’re going to look at that part that says “the life He lives (speaking of Jesus), He lives with God.”

Don’t you think that when we consider our relationship with God, we think of living for God, or with God?  Those small words “for” and “with” make a big difference, don’t they?  Living to God. living TO God, . . . well, that’s a change we have to deal with!  So what of it?  What does it mean to “live TO God”?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions.  

When we think of presenting actions TO someone, we often think of playing before our audience.  So we might be excused if we think of God as a sort of audience for our lives.  Now, right away, let me tell you that I don’t come close to limiting God to that role.  In fact, I am sure it is one of the minor roles He plays in our lives.  But there are some hints here in the performer/audience relationship, as to how we may relate to God and how He relates to us.

First, an audience is not static, but active.  Actors and singers and other performers feed off a good audience and sag with a poor one.  I know from preaching that an engaged congregation makes for a better sermon.  So you’re on notice!  I’m saying here that God watching us may help us along to better living.

Second, an audience comes with expectations and hopes.  An audience expects a performance by professionals to be of a certain caliber.  Shoddy workmanship leaves them cold.  I think God expects our lives to show a certain quality too.  An audience also comes with hopes, wishing that a performance will move them and perhaps help them see life in a new way.  I think God hopes that for us too, that our lives will provide exultation and transport to new ways of seeing and being.

Third, an audience affects a performance.  Many are the tales of Broadway-bound shows that were torn down after a few out-of-town tryouts only to be rebuilt for Broadway.  The director and producers read their audiences, who help lead the way to a better show.  God is always an active watcher, leading and cajoling us higher.

Of course, as I said, God is much more than an audience in our lives.  It occurs to me that living TO God has the effect of a relay race.  When we have reached our singular goal in the race, we pass our baton along to God and He takes us further down the track than we ever dreamed we might go!  He takes our hopes and dreams and possibilities and makes them something new and stronger!

Enough about “living TO God.”  There’s another thing here that struck me.  The verse says “The life He lives, He lives to God.”  That is lives in the present tense.  We are reminded that Christ is alive.  We may not see Him.  We may not hear Him or touch Him, but He is with us sure enough.  His presence is real, and it changes things in us and around us.

There’s an old story about St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris.  When Christians were being persecuted in the third century, Bishop Denis was their leader.  He was eventually beheaded by the hordes that took over the city.  Now the rest of the story is a legend, but the way it goes is this.  Denis’s body rose up from the ground, picked up his severed head, and walked back to his cathedral, preaching a sermon the entire way!

Okay.  That seems unbelievable I know.  Yet, the story persisted back in those days, and it has had enough strength behind it to make it to us after nearly 1800 years.  Even if we can’t begin to believe this tale, the fact that believers once held to it during terrible times tells us how powerful a faith can be.  We can be strengthened even by the unbelievable!  Living TO God, I believe, means leaning so far in His direction that we are blessed with new sight; we can believe and follow the unlikely and even the impossible.  We can find new life . . . and walk on.

I have tried my best to live for God, and with God, and I am going to try now also to live TO God, to see beyond all limitations and have a faith that lifts me into new life.  Let us strive to walk in this sort of faith, to walk together with God, and for God, knowing full well that as we live in His way we are surely walking TO God!  Amen.

Beyond Scapegoat Living (Genesis 22:1-14)

June 19, 2014

6_abraham-isaac-sacrifice

Christians, Jews, and Muslims all look back on Abraham as their father, the beginner of their line of faith.  People of all three faiths have told this story down through the generations, pointing to it as a place of paradigm shift, as the moment a door opened to a new reality of faith, of practice, and of living in relationship with the Almighty.

Here is a moment where the known world and its way of seeing and understanding was overthrown and stood on its head.  Here is the beginning of something new and brilliant.  Still, how often do we read the story and misunderstand it?

You see, what the text doesn’t say is that in those days a person might really and truly sacrifice his child.  The religions and secular practices around Abraham at that time would not have found it unusual.  The Philistines and other cultures around offered such sacrifices to their gods in times of drought or great trouble.  Surely, such sacrifices were only to be made in extreme circumstances.  But they happened all around Abraham; they happened with some regularity.

And here, in the chapter before our reading, Abraham has made a pact with Abimelek and his Philistine people.  I don’t read that God told Abraham to do this.  I don’t see anywhere when God said to take Abimelek seven sheep and make a treaty with this foreign nation, but Abraham did it.  He connected himself in allegiance to a people who did not know his God, and in so doing, he connected himself to their ways and customs to some degree.

So here is Abraham, living with his family in this alien nation for some time.  Isaac is growing up there, influenced by the ways of the Philistines.  This is when God calls Abraham out into the wilderness where he is supposed to sacrifice his son.  Abraham is probably thinking that if other gods ask this sort of sacrifice of the Philistines, who is he to offer less to his God?

Even though Abraham set out to do God’s bidding, thinking it was no more than was expected of his faith, those stacks of wood for the fire must have been awfully, awfully heavy!

Think of the loads we carry.  Think of the worries we bear.  Here is Abraham, a wealthy old man, sure enough.  But he is living among foreigners, and he is being asked to sacrifice his only son, the one he waited well into his old age for.   Imagine his inner turmoil!  Should he go through with this sacrifice?  He knows his Philistine neighbors will accept it.  He believes God has called him to is as the Philistine gods call their people.  Yet, the process of planning and performing this act is sickening to him.  It would be bad enough for any father, but when you consider how long Abraham and Sarah waited for a child, the difficulty magnifies.  Doing this can’t be right, can it?

Is this God of his worth listening to if His expectation is for such painful sacrifice?  Has everything he had believed been pointless?  Has he latched on to a cruel and distant God?  That’s a lot of stress for an old man.  And the stress cuts right to the heart of his faith.

Life is hard.  Life is full of times when the options before us all seem far less than ideal.  Long before the time of Christ, the Buddha said that “life is full of stress which brings us to suffer.”  And Abraham surely would have agreed that day as he walked to the mountain of sacrifice.

Life is hard.  That hasn’t changed.  As I said, think of the loads we bear — children who are growing up in a time of great uncertainty when they can see murder and rape and war and mistreatment of all kinds of people every day on-line, on tv, and everywhere they go.   Too many people unemployed or under-employed.  Too many of our world’s problems built on the promises of religions.  All the modern ability to go to the moon and more, and yet millions of people go hungry every day right here on our planet.

Life is hard.  All around us there is stress and anxiety and uncertainty and pain that is hard to shake.

Life is hard.

I see Abraham with his head down, staring at the bundles of wood he has placed just so for the pyre.  The moment of decision, the moment of truth, breaks his fatherly heart.  He remembers his own words to Isaac, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.”  He must be thinking that he doesn’t deserve to call this dear boy his son.  He must be thinking that he has become a traitor to all he believed about himself.

Just as Abraham raises his knife to strike Isaac down, an angel appears.  I know the words in the Scripture don’t put it quite this way, but allow me a moment of creative storytelling here.  Imagine the angel saying, “No, Abraham.  This is not what your God requires of you.  Let the Philistines make their sacrifices.  Let the whole world take out its anxieties and anger by creating more pain.  Let the evil that makes wrong, hurtful things happen lead others to unbearable choices.  As for you, Abraham, you belong to God, so trust in Him now and always, and He will provide a new and gracious way for you.”

There is a theory — call it the scapegoat theory — that when people work hard to build up their lives and manage the difficulties stresses of life long enough, they inevitably need to force out their stress through an act of anger.  Such acts are thought not only to let off steam, but to balance the scales somehow.  According to this theory, all through history people have taken out their stress and bitterness and pain on scapegoats to bring themselves back to a more even keel, and this paradigm has been through in every culture all through history.  Remember in the Psalms when the Israelites in captivity are longing to beat the heads of Babylonian babies against the rocks?  That is scapegoat thinking.

God is offering a new economy.  No longer will we have to equal our struggles with scapegoat sacrifices, or with any kind of pain.  That trade off need not exist for God Himself will balance the scales and give us other ways to move on into newness of life.  No matter how hard our decisions become, no matter how unhelpful our choices seem, no matter how our difficulties build up, God can release us from the need to act out in old way.  In fact, God can (and will!) release us from all of it.  He can turn our stress and difficulty into options for new love and new life.

Of course, we’ve all heard that this story of Abraham and Isaac is a precursor to the story of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sakes.  Jesus accepting the cross is God’s ultimate way of saying that paying the price for our struggles and balancing the scales of our wrongs and our fears are not acts that are up to us.  He will take care of us.  He is willing and able to release us from all anxiety and pain and hardship.  He has made a way for us that doesn’t require scapegoat living.

Yes, life is hard.  But unlike Buddhism, which teaches people to accept that hardship and use meditation and other skills to adjust to it, Christianity offers us the only chance we will ever get to overcome it!  Oh, life will continue to be difficult, but the connection God is willing to make with us will overwhelm all of our thoughts about struggle and pain and lead us into new and eternal hope . . .

IF WE LET IT!  . . . if we let it . . . if we let it.  We’re so used to fighting God’s difficulties, accustomed to trying to face the hardship and steel ourselves to push through somehow for the sake of our hopes or our families or our positions or just to make it through another day that it’s hard for us to imagine a reality where we don’t have to be the ones to pay the price of sacrifice by taking all the weight of choices and hardships on ourselves.

We CAN let go of our anxieties.  We CAN put aside our self doubts.  We CAN because God shows us again and again that our way through struggle is not one we make for ourselves.  He will provide!  He will make a way for us even when there seems to be no way!  The sacrifice of facing life’s great struggles and its small ones is not our to take on.  That battle has already been won for us.  God has provided, and He always will.

There Is Only The Story

June 18, 2014

emptytomb

Imagine that something absolutely earth-shattering happened.  I’m talking about the kind of event that changes the way we see everything from that moment on.  Imagine, if you can, that it’s something that, even if you had been somewhat warned and able to prepare, you would instantly know that no amount of planning or guessing could ever have been enough.  Imagine that the sense of being completely startled by change only expands and continues without abating.

It’s hard to imagine such a large, life-changing event, isn’t it?  Even the biggest events of our lives — births, weddings, major changes — almost always leave us with some sense of continuity from before-to-after.  Very rare are the moments that take us from here . . . to not here . . . in ways that rearrange all our ways of knowing.

All this.  All this I’ve said is only a hint, barely an introduction, to what the first believers in Jesus must have gone through.  All these centuries later, I am not sure we can put ourselves in their shoes.  We know the story that came after.  We have all that church history behind us to confirm that what they experienced changed the world forever.

For Peter and the others, there was only the story, the witness.  What was coming was still unknown.  They had the past, which represented one world.  They had a series of barely imaginable experienced that changed everything.  And they had a wide-open but wholly unknown new world ahead of them, one that could bring anything, including abject failure.

One day, they were fishermen or tax collectors or whatever, and such a short time later they were creating a whole new way of seeing God and a whole new church in which to celebrate God’s presence among them.

Those first believers took their way of seeing to others by telling their experiences.  It wasn’t about theology, not primarily, not at first.  It was about telling what had happened.  Jesus came, the very Son of God, and He healed and taught and gave Himself to us and for us so that we might be lifted before God as part of His Son.

It was experience that became become voiced as theology, not the other way around.

 

These days, the church (or at least my branch of it) is tied up in arguments about whether homosexual relationships can be treated the same ways by the church in all the same ways as heterosexual ones.  These debates dig up all sorts of issues from how know what we know about God to denominational inconsistencies.

The thing is:  We’re wringing our hands about theology.  We’re debating logic and hermeneutics.  And we’re doing this, often, at the expense of experiencing more of what God continues to offer.

I’ve remembered that I first began to know who God is, and grow in my curiosity about Him, through a love of nature.  I began to experience God through what I could see and smell and touch, though wonder.  And the deepest moments I have had in my faith life have been moments of experiencing wonder.

What I seek now, and always, are more of those moments.  Yes, I will continue to be interested in understanding how God works, in theology, but all that will by experiencing God’s presence and His leading in my life and in lives around me.  I expect earth-shattering things to happen because that’s the kind of God I know.

I don’t know for sure what God wants His church (or my church, the UMC) to do about all the issues of the day.  But I do know He wants me see Him in others (ALL others), and to consider more deeply what I might learn from the ways others have experienced Him.  I am not putting any limitations on that because I don’t know a God of limitations.

I know a God who shatters expectations and builds amazing new worlds in the middle of the everyday and ordinary.  He will fill out the future in ways I cannot imagine.  The story will continue, and I will continue to seek God.

Broken by Love

June 11, 2014

Padlocks on the Pont de l'Archeveche, Paris, France - 24 Sep 2011I saw a news story about a bridge next to Notre Dame Cathedral.  (Pont de l’Archeveche).  Local officials in Paris are concerned that the bridge may be in a state of slow collapse.  It seems it is  overburdened with weight.

No.  There’s nothing wrong with the way the bridge was designed or built.  And it hasn’t sustained a serious accident.  The weight that is causing the bridge to be overburdened comes from hundreds — no, thousands — of padlocks that have been hooked into the grating along the facing of the bridge.

It seems that about 100 years ago, lovers got the idea to put their initials on a padlock and fix the lock to a bridge and throw away the key.  This was all done to represent the bringing together of their lives, and the unbreakable bond of their love.  In Paris, several bridges have many, many locks affixed to them.  Ever since the heady days when WWII ended, more and more people have been pledging their love in this fashion, and now there is legitimate concern that the weight of the locks may cause danger for people needing to use the bridges.

It seems to me that this is a metaphor for life.  As we go along, we construct all sorts of practical means to get us through day by day.  Just as civil engineers have built bridges for their practicality, we build in our lives careers, connections, educations, insurance and investment plans, and many other useful conveyances to get us through.  It is a very good and necessary  thing that we plan in these ways.  We need structure and familiarity in our lives.

But how often do we find that the zesty wonders of life are those things we didn’t plan for!?  How wonderful it is when we see that our careers are a venue for helping others!  How blessed we are when our connections with others reflect back to us the deeper meanings of life!  Education can bring not only the wonder of discovery, but may also guide us to our best place.  Likewise, the other practical things of life may shine in ways we never intended them to just as a bridge for carrying traffic may become a testimony to joined hearts and lasting love.

So if the trusses and beams of a bridge are groaning because of the weight of love expressed, give thanks!  Like the bridge, our humanness may mark us as being weak, but it also permits us to carry more than the necessary commercial traffic of life.  We are blessed with all the opportunities that love affords, and we are given the hope of lasting bonds.  Give thanks!

Still, we must recognize that there is only so much weight a bridge can carry, and perhaps it is also true that there are many people out there overburdened by what they have taken on in life.  There are no engineers to scrutinize our lives for signs of distress.  When we take on too much, sometimes the groans of our inner girders go unheard and unseen.

In some cities, officials are now placing iron structures that resemble trees near the “love lock bridges,” and plan to move some of the locks onto the trees.  There, they will create lasting pieces of art that remind people of devotion and constancy.  Love will go on.

This reminds me of the story in Jeremiah, where God has the prophet go to a potter’s house.  When Jeremiah sees that the potter begins one pot only to have it fall in his hands, he understands how temporary and fleeting human accomplishment can be.  But then the potter simply takes down the clay and builds it up again in a new shape, mirroring the work that God is always attempting to do for us in our lives.  The Japanese have an art form called Kintsugi where broken pots are repaired and made even more beautiful by working gold into the cracks.  I think this is how God is trying to work for us.

I picture Jesus, His human body broken on the Cross, still somehow through His perfect love taking that devastation and turning it into the beauty and grace of salvation.  He leads the way for us in love, yes.  But He allowed Himself to be broken for love, so that the great gift of love might be seen in new and life-giving ways.  He mends our souls with the touch of something greater and more beautiful than gold.  He makes us more than we ever could have been.

Yes, we are all broken, overworked like groaning bridges.  Collapse is always a possibility.  But if the work that overburdens us is love — if that is our focus and our practice — we will find that where anything we do might have begin as a practicality of living, it can be turned into a lasting and beautiful piece of art in God’s mending hands.

It’s true that we can all be broken.  We all will be at some point, perhaps many times.  As for me, I know Someone who can take shards of clay and make a beautiful mosaic.  I know the ultimate Mender and Healer.  And as for me, if I am going to be broken, I will seek for it to come as I attempt to perform weighty acts of great and lasting and connecting love.

After the After

June 10, 2014

Lectionary for June 22 (Laity Sunday) –

Genesis 21:8-21 — Abraham casts out Hagar and her son, God saves them — Jeremiah 20:7-13 — the Lord is a dread warrior (with me against all that makes me cry out — Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18  – I have borne reproach for Your sake/draw near to me, redeem me —  Romans 6:1b-11 —  if we are united with Christ in a death like His, surely we will be reunited with Him in His (overcoming) life! — Matthew 10:24-39 — So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”

 

Sermon — After the After

We all know how to handle the high moments of life.  It’s Easter, let’s sing!  It’s Pentecost, let’s celebrate!  Here’s a wedding coming up!  There’s a high school commencement!  Get some balloons!  Buy some barbecue!  Let’s have a party!

Those moments of joy make us want to come together and hug and sing and play.  There is no difficulty in knowing what to do.

The dark times of life, however, are another matter.  Tragedy and misery are hard to grasp, let alone to manage.  And here’s a secret.  Life can be even harder than anyone lets on.

And there’s a reason this secret stays secret.  We don’t like to stop and think about how scary life can be,  We don’t like to admit that we can be overwhelmed.  But we can.  It’s true.  And this is not a flaw of modernity; it’s always been true.  Just listen to the psalm.

(R)escue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.   Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.  Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.  (Psalm 29:14-15)

 

These are the words of someone who knows fear.  When overwhelmed by life’s complexities and twists and turns, the psalmist has nothing left but to turn his palms to the sky and beg for answers from the Almighty One.  Have you ever been there?  I have.  In our community, just recently, we’ve lost a beloved volunteer because of a car accident.   And that’s just a visible and obvious example of unfairness and hardship — How many people are out of work but don’t like to talk about it?  How many families are stressed to their breaking points?  How many children are being bullied?  How many people suffer with mental illness, emotional problems, addictions, haunted memories, and all the other ills that can slow us down, make us stumble, and suggest to us that there is no way to fit in?  How many suffer day after day through miserable situations that aren’t so easy to see?

We don’t often talk about all this because we know it’s important to keep hope thriving.  We know life requires us to keep going — even through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and other miserable places — so we focus on faith and hope and unity and second chances, and anything else we can hang on to to get us through.  Like the psalmist, we turn our empty hands up and beg for any help that can be had.

Picture Hagar, hungry and stumbling through a barren land.  Finally, even hope goes dark and all she can think of to do is put her starving baby under a bush so that she won’t have to watch while he takes his last breaths. She had reached the end.  First there was life in Abraham’s camp.  Then came the time after when she tried to survive as an outcast.  Now, she was dealing with “after the after.”

Imagine the disciples and other early followers of Jesus.  They had to deal with watching their beloved leader crucified and entombed.  Then they had to deal with what came after — He was resurrected and returned among them and teach them again!  They knew what to do with this glorious, amazing good news.  They celebrated the after!

Finally, however, Jesus ascended , to be seen on earth no more.  Then, His followers had to find a way to deal with after the after.  What were they supposed to do when Jesus’ teachings and miracles — His very being — was gone from them?  They simply didn’t have answers.  Like Hagar in the wilderness, they retreated and raised their empty palms to God.  Help us!

Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.  Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress–make haste to answer me.  Draw near to me, redeem me.  (Psalm 69:16-18)

 

It’s hard for me to read those heartfelt words of supplication without getting choked up.  I’ve prayed prayers like that.  I’ve been there.  There is the life we get used to with its highs and lows running along a line we can foresee and appreciate and manage.  There is the after, where things fall off the rails or change directions.  Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not, but we can at least adjust and start figuring out a direction to keep walking.  Then there is after the after, when you have no answers and your feet no longer seem to have blood and bones in them, and all directions look dark and hopeless.

Still, we all know that sitting by the side of the road and refusing to look at just how bad things are isn’t an option.  Life demands that we keep going.  Hope demands that we keep trying.  Faith demands that we seek and find a direction.  But if we’re there, stuck on that sidetrack, what can we do?  Is there a way to go beyond merely putting up our empty palms and praying “Help!”?

I’ve struggled with low self esteem and depression all my life.  I didn’t know it was depression until I got to be in my teens.  I started seeking therapy then, and I have seen a dozen or more therapists, taken many medications, and received a range of confusing diagnoses and perplexing bits of advice over the years.  More recently, I have learned that what I thought was ‘simple’ depression (not that it’s ever simple, and certainly never easy) was, in fact, bipolar disorder. Without getting into the medical details, bipolar disorder is generally harder for doctors to treat and harder for patients to manage.  This diagnosis is complicated by the fact that I’ve had this condition for so long that it deeply colors my personality.  I could make quite a list of other psychiatric or emotional conditions that I have developed.  In the end, it comes down to me struggling every single day to feel worthy and to find my way.  my ‘after’ — that time of uncertainty and trying to find a direction — has essentially been my entire life.

Lately, I’ve been living in the ‘after the after.’  I am worn out — beyond worn out — from searching for a way to feel better about myself or to fit into the world around me in acceptable and useful ways.  I’ve tried and tried, but no therapy or medication changes things for me.  At the same time, I am smart enough to know that sitting on a sidetrack with my empty palms up is not a viable response.

So what does one do ‘after the after’?

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The world breaks everyone, and some are strong at the broken places.”  I don’t know if I am strong in my broken places.  I don’t know if Hemingway was either — he committed suicide after all.  I know that I am here.  And I know that whether I make any visible progress or not, I am still trying.  I have lived with my particular secret of how hard life can for nearly 56 years now.  I’m still here.

I have no answers to offer for you to put into play when you come to the moment after the after.  I only have practices that I cling to.   I try to stick close to my faith.  I keep going to church, even when I don’t feel like it, for instance.  And I keep trying — trying anything, everything.  I keep putting myself out there in social situations even though I feel that I do very poorly in most social situations and that I never develop the closeness or friendships that I crave.  I also keep going to my doctor, even when the medications and advice don’t seem to be making a difference.  It’s good for me to know that I am trying even when the effort seems not to get me any new answers.  At least I am doing all I can.  And that means something.

I remember the today is not tomorrow.  Tomorrow, things may be different.  The Holy Spirit may move.  I may even recognize it as it goes by.  So I hang in and keep watching.  I also remember key messages of my faith.  I force myself to keep reading the Bible.  And sometimes I even write sermons, even though no one will hear them.  This is a way of keeping up practices that, if not helpful in the moment, have been meaningful to me over the years.  By keeping these familiar words and ideas nearby, I hope they will sink into my being and give me direction, or give me peace in the meantime.  St. Paul reminds me:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life.  (Romans 6:4-5)

 

That’s a promise of new life.  Even being buried is not an ending.  I can’t quite see what a new life might look like for me.  And I have gone a long time without being able to see it.  So  . . . maybe I can’t give the fullest faith to this statement.  Maybe I can’t live out its reality yet — because I can’t envision it — but I do what I can do.  I can remember what I’ve been promised.  I cling to that.  And in clinging, my hands are not yet empty.  Jesus said,  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Matthew 10:29-31)

Now, this message is embedded in a statement where Jesus said some very difficult things.  He acknowledges that His followers will be persecuted.  He acknowledges that believers will be set against their families and friends.   He proclaims that the nature of truly following Him may also mean to give up your very life, all you know about yourself.  But embedded within all this difficulty, He reminds us that we are each worth a great deal to Him.

I do have trouble with self worth.  I always have.  I do not have answers for the struggles in my life, not final ones anyway.  I am in the process, still looking, and sometimes I am hunting in the dark.  But I am still hunting.

Then, I tell myself this:

Life demands that we keep going.  Hope demands that we keep trying.  Faith demands that we seek and find a direction.

And one step more:  Love demands that we cling to what is alive — to relationship, to the tiniest gleam of the coming morrow.  Love is a living force.  Keep looking for it and encourage it to thrive by being part of it in every way you can.

I tell myself:  God knows who I am.  God knows what I have been through.  God knows I still seek Him.  I may stumble, I may fall, I may feel like I am making no headway.  There is a belief that I choose to build my life around.   I believe that when I turn my hands up to the sky, no matter how bad I feel or how little I have progressed or how often I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, . . . no matter what, . . . I believe that when I turn my hands up to God, they won’t be empty.  Jesus will reach out and take hold.

Lord, I believe.  Help me in my unbelief.  Light my path that I may find more assurance, that I may come closer to you and show your love and grace to others.  Make of me what you have always sought for me to be.  I seek to empty my hands of all I have held on to for its own sake.  I open my hands and my life to you.  I don’t know what my next step should be, but I will trust you on that step, and the step after, and even after the after.  Amen.

6/6/2014

June 6, 2014

6/6/2014

June 6, 2014 at 10:35am

 

They are those sent.

 

We send young men to fight our wars,

sometimes even before they have the opportunity to marry.

They are called up, trained, sent out in force

their gear and the weight of nations to carry.every

There is no saying which will be brave,

which will be true, or which will die without the chance

to think of the things they’d like to save.

we can’t foretell circumstance.

 

looking back and knowing

all the things that we never knew,

all the things we got wrong,

it makes me feel too few

 

of us can even hope to understand.

why plan wars when we can’t guess

how wrong they’ll go, how out of hand

things will be, how much a mess?

 

the planners waited for word

of what happened to those they’d sent.

it was hard to grasp what they heard,

even then, hard to see all it meant.

 

but they all knew, even if they would not say,

that those best and brightest that had gone

because they’d been sent, would day that day

and for many days to come, on and on.

 

the legions of the killed would increase,

every foothold won was like a grave.

every inch of ground a memorial. surcease
these battles!  the dead may cry.  but . . . there is a world to save!

and there’s what war comes down to — what is worth the cost?

and who pays it?  the world calls out.  nations send

their best to fight, not knowing how many will be lost,

not guessing all that will go wrong before the end.

those sent, they didn’t get to guess.  as kipling wrote

“there’s was but to do or die.”  they went.
(. . . if the world is ever aided, ever bettered, through war, it is not thanks to the planners and the bureaucrats, nor to the big names that are recorded in hisotry books, i believe, but thanks to those many who answer the call . . .  .)
give them their due.  sing loud every note!

they earned it the second they were sent.

 

cw

 

Lenten Songs

April 19, 2014

I set myself the task of writing songs for Lent based on the readings in each service’s lectionary.  Here are my results.

Poems for Lent (based on Lections for Year A), A Series — “Lenten Questions and Answers”

 

Ash Wednesday (3/5/14) – Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 (Blow the trumpet in Zion . . .for the day of the Lord is coming near) •  Psalm 51:1-17  (Have mercy on me . . . wash me thoroughly of my iniquity) •  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 (Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.) • Matthew 6:16-21 (do not store up for yourself treasures on earth . . .) — Love and Meaning (What should we treasure, and how?  Where should we find meaning?)

 

Grace and Mercy (drawn from Matthew 6:16-6:21 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10)

What should we cherish?  What should we treasure?

How can we know where the best will be found?

Do we value work or do we work for leisure?

Answers and questions go ‘round and around.

We can break down every answer, doubt our every turn;

hold in question our very capacity to discern,

Or we can be grateful for what gifts we have and know we could never earn

so much.

We can find meaning in what we can touch,

What we can know, what we can see,

and in the one whose grace brings all to be.

 

*For God is grace and mercy.

His anger is slow and His love is steadfast.

God relents from anger.

Return to God, return at last.

 

Life is in giving.  Life is a present.

There’s so much we can’t earn, more we won’t know.

We could be so rich or could each be a peasant.

Still, hardships will come, good things will flow.

We could tarnish the good with our worries and and our fears,

or choose to see light even through the worst of our teats,

and we can know through all the ups and downs the love that has been with us through the years . . .

such love,

The love only God is capable of.

Faith is the grace that bears us on;

God’s love is the mercy that is never gone.*

 

Return to God and be returned in full.

Push yourself to Him and feel His pull.

Lord, let me find meaning in you,

place all my being in you.

Yes, return to the Lord,

and find all your treasures stored

for you in heaven.

 

cw

First Sunday 3/9/14 — Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7  (Adam and Eve disobey God) •  Psalm 32  (You are my hiding place.)  •  Romans 5:12-19 (by one man’s obedience the sins of all can be forgiven) • Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptation in the wilderness.)  – Love and Error (What if we’re wrong?)

 

Take a Chance! (Drawn from Genesis 2 and Matthew 4)

 

we all make mistakes

and then we bear the aches

of all the things gone wrong.

We all feel the terror

over possible error,

crashing our way along.

through the walls, past the barriers, blurring all the lines;

we find ways for new errors; we do it all the time.

 

* take a chance, the voice says.

don’t you know that effort pays?

why take stones when there’s bread?

leap down; fall like lead!

all the world, you could take.

or worship God for good’s sake!

don’t leave any day hollow!

you know who to follow!

 

we all know what life takes

and when we make mistakes

we know we need forgiveness.

it’s not only for us

but to rebuild trust

in all that our life is.

take a chance!  Go with God knowing He can’t fail.

sin falls away, east, west, and abroad, . . . His light won’t fail.

 

temptations will always be out there,

waiting for you just ahead.

life is meant to be lived fully and well,

and God is the one who has said

take your chance, your life, and follow me.*

 

cw

Second Sunday 3/16/14 – Genesis 12:1-4a (Abram is sent by God to a far country.) •  Psalm 121 (The Lord will keep your going out and coming in . . .forevermore.) •  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (faith is recognized as righteousness.) • Matthew 17:1-9 (the Transfiguration.) — Love and the Nature of Change (Why must we change?)

 

Follow On (Drawn from Matthew 17:1-9, Psalm 121, and Genesis 12:1-4)

 

I gave every sign of going;

you should not have been surprised.

You saw the changes coming

when I stood there in the skies

with the promises around me,

when the doubts should have been gone

I gave you every clue as I led you.

It’s up to you now.  Follow on?

 

*It’s not that I am leaving you.

I’ll just lead you further on.

You can be where I have gon.

Follow on.

 

Some people follow where I lead

and their stories ring for years.

Love rings out through their vict’ries,

and sometimes through their tears.

Abram went to a far country

but turned his sister to a pawn.

I’ll show you a still better way

if you’ll only follow on. *

 

Don’t you remember God said to us He’d keep us coming and going?

Isn’t His presence in our lives enough to enlighten your knowing?

It’s not enough to merely go when God promises a dawn.

You must shine as His light does shine.  Come, follow on.

Third Sunday 3/23/14 — Exodus 17:1-7 (Moses strikes the rock for water.) •  Psalm 95 (Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah.)  •  Romans 5:1-11  (suffering produces endurance . . . endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint) •  John 4:5-42 (the Samaritan woman at the well.) — Love and Our Circumstances (What happens when we are the wrong sort of people?)

 

At the Well (Drawn from John 4:5-42)

 

everyone needs water

and so i come for water

i too am jacob’s daughter

though few will call me so.

 

every day i wait ‘til

the others have had their fill,

knowing how they always will

berate me as i come and go.

 

you, Jewish man with the piercing eyes,

you know things much to my surprise,

but i don’t understand this ‘living water’ you speak of.

it seems to me like a promise,

or like something i’ve missed,

or the memory of my mother and her love.

are you saying their is constant, renewing love?

 

at the well, they come and gather

but they’d leave if i’d bother

to join them as they blather.

their hatred is their life.

 

what you promise seems to be

impossible for such as me

but i will follow, i will see

your water, which bears life.

 

i, the one who should never be here

would walk far to find a place that’s clear

of judgment, pain, and this abandonment i’ve known.

if you’re the door i exit through

then i will go, and follow you,

or i will do your bidding here on my own

for this hope of love is more than i have known.

Fourth Sunday 3/30/14 — 1 Samuel 16:1-13 (How long will you grieve over Saul?/choosing David)) •  Psalm 23 (shepherd) •  Ephesians 5:8-14 (the fruit of the light is found in all that are good and true.) •  John 9:1-41 (the man called Jesus healed my eyes.) — Love and the Giving of Gifts (What if we are undeserving?)

 

Blind (Drawn from John 9:1-41)

 

If the blind can see, why can’t you?

It’s hard to understand, but so easy to do.

Just look at what’s in front of us without predetermining.

Just look, and your soul might sing.

 

If a hand can heal, take that hand

even it it’s not exactly what you had planned.

Give up yourself and all the ways you wanted you plans to win.

Give up, and going on can begin.

 

Let those who wake in the morning

in the arms of a loving God

go out giving that love to all,

spreading it far and abroad.

Otherwise we are keeper

of a load we cannot bear.

Undeserving though we may be

there’s a hope for us out there.

 

If a soul can rise, let it go.

Don’t be chained to your ways, anyone can grow.

If you were truly flying, you could hold no one to the ground.

Fly now, and let your songs resound.

Fifth Sunday 4/6/14 —  Ezekiel 37:1-14 (‘Can these bones live?’) •  Psalm 130 (Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.) •  Romans 8:6-11 (the mind that is in the flesh cannot please God, but you are not in the flesh you are in the Spirit.) •  John 11:1-45 (the resurrection of Lazarus.) — Love and Death (What happens to us?)

 

Bones (Drawn from Ezekiel 37:1-4 and John 11:1-45)

 

“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice.1

I can’t carry the weight of these lonely stones,

these lifeless bones,

the ioul, my own

so I cry to you.  What will become of me?

 

I ask of you, Lord, can these ancient bones come back to life?

Can this charnel house around me take bloom

and make perfume

in the dark room

deep inside of me?  How could this ever be?

 

What happens to us when our lives are shattered?

What becomes of us when it seems all that mattered

is dried up and gone away?

I don’t know the answers for every person,

but one of the few things I know for certain

is that where we stop isn’t always where we stay.

Sometimes, there’s another way.

 

I don’t find light by studying the dark.  Lord, hear this truth.

I don’t find a way out by staying within;

no, i must begin

to love again

better than before.  What will become of me?

 

We’re all broken vessels waiting for mending,

hoping for loving, healing hands to come tending

to our every cut and sore.

What happens to us when we need a new spark

to bring us new life when all lights have gone dark?

Lord, you made all things and you can recreate me.

Set this broken spirit free.

 

1. Psalm 130:1

Sixth Sunday (Palm & Passion) 4/13/14 — PALMS — Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (His steadfast love endures forever.) •  Matthew 21:1-11 (The parade of palms.)  PASSION — Isaiah 50:4-9a (I have turned my back on them .. He who vindicates me is near.) •  Psalm 31:9-16 (Deliver me from the hands of my enemies.) •  Philippians 2:5-11 (He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave.) •  Matthew 27:11-54 (Jesus before Pilate — Are you the King of the Jews . . . Barabbas.) — Love and a Greater Gift (What is love and how does it work?)

 

Love Is a Gift (Drawn from Philippians 2:5-11)

 

I always wanted to know that fairy tale

to have a boat to sail

out on to the seas of the deepest love.

I always dreamed of that one in whom I’d find

a match, and then i’d bind

myself to her and it would be enough.

These romantic musings, they held me for a while;

they kept me up, they kept me strong.  How they made me smile!

 

But there’s poison n the apple I took down;

and there’s evil around,

and all those hopes and dreams can’t prevent it.

I slammed to a stop on that road I’d made;

and i was sore afraid

where nothing was how i would intend it.

Romance and poems have their pow’r; they’re a gift to me.

But it’s the Giver I need now!  Lord, please come to me!

 

Love is a gift from one who has no other reason to give

than all the things He is and all the reasons He’d want you to live.

Love is a free grace, a great race, a source of unending peace.

And love is the path to take when all your doubts beg for release.

 

I found that true love is not a fairy tale.

It’s more than a boat to sail;

It’s wider and deeper than the sea.

My dreams are now full of much greater things

and my love can take wings

and carry the weight of my soul to the greatest heights.

Lord, help me shine that others may rise.  Help me be a light!

Maundy Thursday 4/17/14 — Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14  (the Lord explains the nature of Passover.) •  Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19  (I am your servant.) • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (Paul explains the practice of Eucharist.) •  John 13:1-17, 31b-35 (Jesus washes the Disciples’ feet.) — Love and Power (Who serves whom?)

 

What I Do (Drawn from John 13)

 

If we follow, we will be

at the head of all we see.

For the first shall be last

and the future will pass

to everyone.

The last shall be first, and then

the dead are sure to rise again.

Come, all come to the feast!

Where the greatest and the least

all join as one.

 

*And if I bow to wash your feet, don’t be shaken.

For what I do for you I do for all.

And what you do for others won’t be taken

As any less than answering God’s call.

 

The towel of service is mine

and you can take it as well.

My example, like wine,

shall age well and compel

that you shall share.

If I wash your feet, you’ll know

your soul is cleansed by God above.

Come, for He won’t let you go!

Come and partake of His love!

You’ll feel HIs care.*

Good Friday 4/18/14 — Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief.) •  Psalm 22 (My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?) • Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 (Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.) •  John 18:1-19:42 (Jesus arrested and before Caiaphas and Pilate, the Crucifixion.) — Love and Blame (Are you our King?)

Can’t Go Back (Drawn from John 18)

 

I promised them a kingdom,

but now I only have the strain

of expectations unmet,

non-acceptance, and pain.

If they are looking at me

and seeing what I have come to,

they’ll forget all the parades

and go look for something new.

 

*If you’ve ever tried to please the world, you’ll know

some are threatened by the way things go.

If you show them the way that the past has led

there will be denial instead

And you can’t go back — can’t go back to where you knew

all the rules and standards that saw you through.

We can’t make gods of our familiar ways.

There’s still a God to whom we owe our praise.

 

Praise Him.  Praise Him.  Praise HIm.

Don’t wait for the light.

Praise Him in the darkest places.

And He’ll see you through the night.

 

I offered them a doorway,

a gate where each voice would be known.

As darkness hangs heavy now

I will be raised up alone.

If they say I’m not a king,

I’ll remind them of the thorny crown

they put on me to subject me –

the king of whips and crosses

shall be the one to set them free.

Easter Sunday 4/20/14 — Acts 10:34-43 (Peter preaches about Jesus.) •  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 (Open to me the gates of righteousness . . .) • Colossians 3:1-4 (Set your mind on the things above.) — Matthew 28:1-10 (Mary Magdalene sees the resurrected Christ.) — Love and New Life (Who can expect new life?)

 

About You (Drawn from Matthew 28)

How can this be?  How could you say

that you know my name and speak to me this way?

Rabbouni, wait!  I cannot see

how what you promised has now come to be.

We called you the Messiah, but we walked

a somewhat different road than the one we talked.

I believe.  Help my unbelief!

I struggle to see new life through my grief.

 

* I vowed to praise you, but I let that go.

Lord, help me find that new way I should go.

Praise you that you have come back to me

and given me new life where I can be

more than I’ve ever been without you.

Jesus, I want to make my life about you.

 

Show us your face, show us your ways.

Lord, we need to get swept away with your praise.

You’ve come to us, now help us go

out to the world to say you love them so.

We will follow where you lead, we will rise

and reflect your gifts to the earth and to the skies.

Give us life.  And let us be

a gift to all who need you so badly.

 

Let us sing the songs that praise you!

Let us share our gifts and raise you

before every eye and into every land.

Your you’ve been our heart, let us be your hands.*

These poems were written by Chris Weitzel and posted on 4/19/2014.  They are not meant to be reused, and any reprinting or other use of them must be approved by the author.

Grace Amidst the Struggles

July 3, 2013

Sometimes, I just don’t know about grace.  I mean, . . . what is it if I can’t feel it?  How is it useful if I don’t perceive it or seem to be receiving it?  Where is it in the hard times when I need it most?

Currently, the only answer I have is this:  this is where faith comes in.  It’s up to me to press my faith into serving during these times of questioning.  The deal with God is that we are supposed to be in a loving relationship with Him, and the things about loving relationships is that they may get difficult and even messy on the surface, but underneath the tensions there is a sustaining bedrock of trust and goodwill and shared feelings.

So in order to stay in a relationship with God, and perhaps in order to get access to the grace I need, I must trust Him even when I cannot see or feel Him, I must accept and act in His good will for me, and I must continue to share my feelings with Him and to look for His responses.

Nobody ever said relationships would be easy, and nobody ever said that grace would come and stay without us working for God and with God and toward God on our end.

 


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