8/11/14 — The Noise Within, the Noise Without

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams died today.  He was 63.  Early reports say he committed suicide after a period of depression.  He had recently been in treatment, but was at home when he died.  Since I got the news, I have been on Facebook, looking at what people are saying, and responding to some of them.

But the things I have said there are not all I want to say.  I have struggled all my life with what I called depression.  In recent years, I have discovered that I am bi-polar, and that has helped explain why years of medications and other treatments for depression didn’t get far.  Still, even with a better diagnosis, I am finding that “getting better” in the case of psychiatric conditions is sometimes a slow and stunted and highly frustrating process.  I can’t claim to know what Robin Williams dealt with, but I think I can claim a certain kinship.  He’s gone.  His pain must have been brutal to drive him to that point.  Just knowing that a brilliant and successful and beloved person can get that far down has reaffirmed what I have long known — mental health issues are incredibly tough.  They are hard to diagnose, hard to talk about, hard to share with others, hard to treat, and hard, indeed very hard, to survive.

Two things about that:  1) I am feeling shaky and very sad since I heard the news.  2) I am still here.

These last couple of weeks I have been thinking about a Sunday School lesson I am scheduled to teach on August 31.  Now, I will need this lesson myself, so I need to dig into preparing it.  The topic is hope.  I have been planning to read the ending to Steven King’s novella “Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”  (The movie based on the book is just “The Shawshank Redemption.”)   At the end of the book, paroled felon Red (Morgan Freeman in the film) is on a bus heading for a seaside town in Mexico where he will meet his jail friend Andy Dufresne.  In the film, you hear Freeman’s famous voice talking about hope.  Red is almost shocked to find that he hopes . . . at all, . . . for anything!  After all he has seen in his many years in prison, it is not surprising that he was a stranger to hope.  What is surprising is that he finds his way back to hopefulness.  Or, perhaps, it would be better to say that hope finds a way to break through to him?

I just remember the words . . . “I hope I find my friend.  I hope.”

I am feeling shaky and sad.  But I am still here.  Hope exists.  I think of hope as a way to pull something toward me from the outside when there is too much distracting noise on the inside.  I also find if can be a soothing presence within me when there is something awful without.  Yes, there have been times when I couldn’t find hope.  I guess Robin Williams must have known what that was like too.  Sometimes, the multitude of noises drown out the peace.  Still, even in the midst of all this sadness, I feel safe in saying that Robin Williams also knew that hope was alive all around us . . . at least, I know he was aware of its presence most of the time.

I know he understood because I know an actor faces and must overcome all kinds of doubts.  I know he heard the noises from all around him telling him what he couldn’t do.  I know he heard the voices from within doubting what he could do.  And I know he went on.  I know he understood hope because there is no humor without it.  I know he understood hope because he played it so well . . . in Good Morning, Vietnam, in Dead Poet’s Society, and in Good Will Hunting among others.  I know he understood hope because he often took its message to our servicemen and women on bases around the world.  His life tells me hope is real and present.  Still, his passing reminds me that there are times when the presence of hope is illusive . . . a wraith.

Against that knowledge, . . . against the sadness, . . .against all the darkness that pervades everywhere, my only weapons are the presence of God and the temerity of hope.  I hope my Sunday School friends will take well to a lesson that does not use the Bible as its main source.  I hope that they have insights on hope that will fill the time I know I won’t be able to fill that day.  I hope in the future I can find more people who are willing and able to dig into how our culture and our churches deal with mental health issues and the struggles people are having all around us.  I hope to change things in some small way.  I hope to fight the noise with God’s peace.  I hope to support others wherever I can and I hope I find the support I crave . . . somewhere.  I hope to keep trying . . . I hope.

Sermon 8/3 — (Isaiah 55:1-5) — “Overwhelmed by Grace”

July 28, 2014

A  couple of weeks ago, our pastor was talking about renaming July “the month of weeds.”  With all the hours of sun, weeds seem to go wild.  Even when there’s not much rain . . .  well, the grass may not grow, but the weeds don’t let up.  And if we get rain, we just get more weeds with it.

As we kick into August, it just gets hotter.  People call it “the dog days” this time of year.  Every bit of work you do, even just walking from air conditioned car to air conditioned house, leaves you panting like a dog.  We get thirsty.

Here’s a few words from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:1-5).  These are words that reach out to people who know what struggle is.  These words  aim for those who have grown thirsty in the exhausting, draining heat of life.  These words point to a God who provides.  “Come to the water!”  “Even without money, come and eat!”

Those are welcome words.  They remind us of other Scriptures where living waters are promised, and of Scriptures where our cups overflow.  Even with all of that, an embarrassment of riches, in this Scripture, Isaiah points to how God will give even more!

Remember that story where Jesus promised the living water?  That’s another example where God brings even more to the feast that what is needed.  There’s a woman taking water from the well in the heat of the afternoon, and Jesus stops by to talk to her.  When she talks about getting the water her family needs for the day, Jesus reminds her that there is such a thing as “living water,” a resource that will never run out.  You don’t drink from this water and turn up thirsty the next day.  This water prevents a person from being thirsty again, it changes everything about their lives.  It takes them from a place ongoing need to a place of everlasting fulfillment.

Here with Isaiah in the OT, we have a similar arrangement.  Isaiah points away from merely focusing on getting water and food for the day.  Even though a feast is promised and no price is required, Isaiah turns to speak of more.

God is using the riches He brings to change the way of living for His people.  You’ve heard the saying that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he is fed for a lifetime!  That’s analogous to what Isaiah is saying.  God doesn’t merely bring us a feast for the day, He prepares a world where we will eat from His feast every day.  And even more, God will change us into leaders of nations, and God will cause nations to come and follow us as their earthly leaders.

Those who thirsted shall be the ones who bring water.  Those who hungered shall provide the feast.  Those who were lost and confused will be the leaders of people and of nations.  God’s gifts will so thoroughly change us, He promises, that through us the world will be changed too, . . . not only for a day, but forever.

God offers not only to meet our needs, but to overwhelm us.  God offers not only to sustain us, but to change us so that we are beyond any concern for our needs.    God offers to take us from a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth economy to an economy where all cups overflow.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons people don’t come to God.  I wonder if they’re too overwhelmed with a change this great?  Moreover, I wonder if part of the reason that many churches don’t grow, don’t thrive is that even “good church people” people come to God with their own expectations.  They see a God that supports them, . . . and their church, . . . but they don’t get to the point of accepting that God may also be looking to overwhelm them and to change them.

The problem is that if we seek a God who supports us, but leaves us where we are, we miss out on a God who wants to overwhelm us with better things and higher wonders.  If we cling to the status quo, the status quo is what we are likely to get.

So I would ask you (as I ask myself) when was the last time something significant changed in your inner being?  When was the last time you opened up enough to God that you saw real growth?  When was the last time that your church, or your community, or your nation was overwhelmed by the extreme nature of God’s grace that they found a bold, new thing and grabbed onto it for the better?

If we’re willing to look for the glory in change, if we’re willing to look for more and be daring, that can open a place in your life for God to enter in and work.  If were willing to b overwhelmed, . . in the best possible way, . . . we can accomplish anything with God.  We can be leaders.  We can raise nations.  We can do anything.  That’s what I believe.  I don’t always live out this belief very well, but I believe it.  And if  we’re willing to believe and live out the powerful presence of God in our lives, we will find that He not only gives us enough for today, but He overwhelms us with grace after grace, gift after gift.  He wants to overwhelm us with gifts to the point that He presence flows out of us and changes the world around us.

But He won’t force it.  He’ll wait for us to come to Him and seek more.  He’ll wait for us to open us and let us become a temple for Him.  A temple, . . . hear this now, . . . a temple is a place that people are drawn to because the presence of God may be found there.

Isaiah heard God promising, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, (of) my steadfast, sure love.”  This is a love beyond our expectations, a love beyond bounds.  Can we say that we have really opened our lives enough for God to find a place in us for such an expansive and expanding gift to live?

On Isaiah 55:1-5

July 28, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5 — Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

 

for i have loaned you my glory, my people.  i have clothed you in the light of my presence.

one after another, the nations will run to you as you reflect me,

those that know you well, and those that haven’t known you at all.  once my essence

is seen in your and around you, they shall all come to see.

my nearness shall be like a voice calling to them, “ho, everyone who has thirst,

all who yearn to be quenched, come and drink!

come for the water is free and the food is plentiful!  come, be the first

to revel in the gifts that you are given.  the garners burst

with good things!  come, here there is no price on the richness of giving!”

oh, we feel sorry for those who spend on what is cheap,

who give their labors for that which does not satisfy, whose living

does not benefit anyone.  they live as if asleep.

the Lord says, “Eat what is good!  Delight yourselves in the food that is given.”

Even all the food in the world, all the rich things

look like nothing compared to God’s gift that is everlasting.  He brings heaven,

and opens it into the world where His glory rings!

God has made leaders and commanders for His people.  God has given much.

Step forth and be thirsty and hungry no more.

Cone, come and be glad all who were thirsty.  Accept the Lords touch!

His gifts are eternal.  Of this, you can be sure.

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.


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