Sunday, February 18, 2024

What do I love?



 Each morning, the first thing I do is reach for my phone. I look at how good of a sleep I got according to my watch data, I read my emails, and check the breaking news.  This habit is not neutral. This is a practice that is forming me.  

Like a sponge, I wake up parched and immediately soak up the world’s tension and division announced to me in breathless headlines. I let the urgency, self-judgment, and need for productivity course through my veins and get my blood pumping. Little do I realize this going to my heart. I am shaping my desire by adrenaline and upheaval, I am being trained to chase competence, proficiency and efficiency, and sooth anxiety with data points and accomplishments.  And, I’m told I’m not fun to be around in the morning.

What is this daily practice telling me about what a good life is and how to live it?  What does it reveal about what I actually love, over against what I think I love?

James Finley shares a story of interning in a VA hospital on the treatment unit for alcoholism in the 1970s. The men on the floor, mostly Vietnam vets, had developed an initiation rite that was passed down. In order to be admitted to the unit, you had to pass through this rite.

Finley describes being in a large room, with chairs all pushed against the four walls and the center empty, except for two chairs facing each other. Nearly 100 men are sitting silently along the walls, heads down, eyes to the floor. 

In comes the person at the end of his rope, with alcohol destroying his life.  He’s nervous, glancing around the room, knowing he will need to pass this initiation to get in.  Those around the walls keep their eyes lowered, and remain completely still and silent. Finley says, “It’s serious as death, which it is.”

The interviewer invites the man to a center chair and sits down across from him. 

The questioner then asks, “What do you love the most?”

“The alcoholic, not know what to say, stammers something out like, “My wife.” at which point everyone in the room yells as loud as they can, “Bull----!” and then goes silent, staring at the floor. 

The rattled man looks back at his questioner, who asks again,

 “What do you love the most?”

“My children,” he tentatively answers.

“Bull---!”, hollers loudly back from all sides.

“What do you love the most?”

Finally, finally, the person says, “Alcohol.”

Immediately all the men rise to their feet and give the man a standing ovation. Then in complete silence they line up and hug him, one at a time, as tears stream down his face.

He is ready to begin his journey.

We can know a lot, believe a lot, have the best intentions and the loftiest goals, but our hearts are shaped by our habits.  Like a compass: our love is directed toward what we put our attention on, what we practice every day.  

Were someone to observe us from afar and describe who we are, they could not see inside us, read our thoughts or intentions, or deduce our motivations, they could only witness and describe what they see us doing with our lives, what direction we are moving. And the conclusions they draw about us would, in some ways, be more accurate than the conclusions we often draw about ourselves.

Generations before Christ, when the Israelites were delivered from bondage in Egypt, they were sent into the wilderness, for 40 years.  All the lifegiving liturgies and practices of their faith that sustained them behind closed doors as the people of God during their 400 years of slavery came with them. But other patterns and habits, the “liturgies” of the empire had been shaping them day after day, telling them their lives were worthless except for what they could produce. The way of fear dominated their waking hours, forming them in daily doses toward self-preservation, guarded competition and on-edge dread. 

But in the barrenness of the wilderness this liturgy was extinguished, and new patterns and practices took their place, shaping them toward a different way of being. Every single day, God, who claimed them as beloved children, miraculously provided them food and water, protection and care.  Little by little, day by day, through habits of trust and dependence on their Creator, they were remade from fear to trust, from degradation to dignity Instead of relentless, competitive striving, they were rooted and grounded in the belonging, generosity and rest of a loving God in whose image they were made for a life of giving and receiving ministry, to bear God’s love to the world. 

Today we read that Jesus’ own ministry begins when he is plunged under the waters of baptism, and hears God’s claim on him, You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.  And then, immediately, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the habit-disrupting, trust-teaching wilderness of his ancestors for 40 days of vulnerability to be cared for by God. 

Lent is the 40 days before the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Easter. It has always been seen as a kind of spiritual wilderness, a time of stripping away of our idols, isolation and captivity, and reorienting us back to God, who loves us and claims us for ministry. 

Lent turns the compass of our hearts back toward God, by first asking us, what is your compass pointing toward, that you may not realize? and then, like an initiation into recovery, disrupting our patterns of self-sufficiency and sin and recalibrating our loves.

Because when we see ourselves and our lives as they really are, and not just as we wish them to be: this is where God meets us, where transformation happens, where discipleship begins again, and again. In the wilderness of Lent, we too are tested by satan and waited on by angels, which is to say, we recognize how deeply seductive are the messages the world gives us about what a good life is, and how strongly they pull on us, but, there, in our most vulnerable and true selves, we are welcomed with ovation and open arms into the care of the one who calls us Beloved child in whom I delight.

My Lenten “liturgical inventory” began this week when I recognized how my waking up, (and for that matter, going to bed) rituals are mis-directing my heart. So I made the choice that I will not look at my phone for the first two hours of being awake. 

Each morning, I greeted the day in front of my eyes instead of on a screen. I was present to those around me instead of barking orders at them, and I felt myself inside my body, instead of racing through emails and giving my attention to whatever felt loudest or most urgent.  I managed to do this 5 of the 7 days. It is uncomfortable and hard.  But how hard it is shows me how necessary it is– like resting on sabbath Sundays reveals my dependance on doing. 

A week in, I’ve already discovered that when I come later in my day to the pressing news and to-do lists, first having awakened to God’s presence and been present myself with a different heart-orientation, it shapes my perspective, and I am noticeably less anxious the whole rest of my day.  

God is God, always here, always holding my life and this world in love, always moving both through and despite humans to bring redemption. I want to trust this, not just with my head, but with my heart, and so, then, also with my habits.  

May it be so. Amen. 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Agents of another reality


Mark 1:14-20 

When a company is under investigation, nobody suggests it’s a great time to invest your money. Who decides to buy an apartment in a building that’s on fire? I’m just saying, cheerfully recruiting new talent when your public spokesperson has just been arrested seems an odd strategy.  

Even though John’s been thrown in jail, Jesus still blows into town saying, I’ve got great news! God’s way is unfolding right now! Change your whole way of seeing things and sign on with me!  At the least, John’s arrest is terrible PR for the movement; at most, shouldn’t it give you pause? And yet, Jesus seems worried not at all. And yet, a bunch of them actually join up.  

The NRSV version makes it sounds like they sign up for a job change – instead of fishing for fish they’re going to fish for people. OK, maybe not entirely the same skill set, but kind of an exciting, lateral move? Risky obviously, given John’s arrest, but a possible upgrade in adventure, at least. Think it over, talk it over with the family, find out the benefits package and maybe give Jesus an answer in a day or two?  But they don’t pause to mull it over, “Immediately” they leave their nets and follow Jesus. 


Being human in the world means with all of our choices and actions we are always asking, What is a good life and how do we live it? And these guys had it answered, at least for the time being. They were fishermen; fisherpeople. They had the skills, the training, the connections and the tools. It’s who they were, it’s how life worked, it’s what they knew, and how they were known in the world, they were fishermen. There was no questioning it, it was the order of things. But with one word from Jesus, and despite the bad news about John, they walk away from everything they know to follow him.

 

When our translation says, “I will make you fish for people,” it captures the true meaning, which is that it is for everyone, humankind, not just men.  But we lose something from the original poetic contrast. Listen: As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  

But by changing “fishers” to “fish for” a noun was made into a verb.  

 

In that moment, Jesus isn’t just giving these people a different job, telling them to do something different. He’s not calling them to work for a new cause. He’s not changing their verb; he’s giving them a new identity.  Jesus isn’t calling us to do stuff for him. Jesus is calling us to follow him and then he points us toward other people.

 

Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of persons. He’s starting where they are, in terms they understand, but inviting them into something they can barely grasp, something that doesn’t even exist in their imagination, something only discoverable by following. 

 

Today we so often think our verb is our identity. We mix up who we are with the things we do.  We think the answer to what a good life is comes from our own efforts, or we let the voices around us tell us makes a person successful or right, and we cling vigilantly to those ideas.  We make it ok to despise those with opposing strategies for the same security and fulfillment as we’re chasing.  And we center ourselves and our well-being, because if we don’t who will?

 

These first disciples did not leave their nets to follow Jesus because he offered a better salary and benefits package, or a more exciting opportunity for advancement, or because he inspired them to fight for a cause, or guilted them to work for a change, or gave them a chance to prove how good they are, or promised a sure path to safety.  


I think they followed Jesus because Jesus came embodying a completely different reality altogether. One where the circumstances around you don’t dictate your identity and your security.  Where—even in the midst of frightening developments and unexpected losses—you still somehow trust, and even proclaim, that God’s up to something unstoppable.  Where the authority over your life is bigger than the powers of the age, and fear doesn’t determine what you’re willing to do or say, your connection to God and others does.

 

The time is fulfilled! Jesus declares. There are two words for time in the Greek, Chronos time means hours, minutes and days, and Kairos time, means the right, opportune time.  Jesus says there is no better time.  Eternity is breaking in nowRight now God’s reality is fully here.  God’s way is unfolding around and in and through and despite us, in no time like the present. 


Love that is eternal - unbreakable, unstoppable and neverending - has punctured our limited, ordinary, right now existence. Eternity is invading this chronos time where our bodies wear out, and our jobs disappear, where our capacities ebb and flow, and our friends move away or die, where we’re always facing unknown, and nothing ever stays constant, where we struggle to find our footing, and when we think we’ve figured life out, it’s not long before we have to start figuring it out all over again.  

 

But, as real as all that seems, as real is it all is, as all-encompassing as our verbing along in chronos time feels, none of that is what truly, deeply defines us. That is to say, being fisherpeople-or teachers or pastors or nurses or Democrats or Republicans or colleagues or volunteers--for however long, or however well, we do that, while those things we do are part of us, they are not who we are. 

 

When God-with-us calls us to be fishers of people, we are called to point our lives in love toward the world and its inhabitants because right now, this moment, God is here with us. Right now, we are here, alongside each other in this fleeting time-bound life. 


No matter how much or little we contribute at any given time, how ready or equipped we feel or don’t, right now we are loved, and we can love. We are seen and we can see one another.  

Amidst an ever-changing landscape of upheaval, we are part of something transcendent and called to something permanent. Within our chronos reality we are drawn into Kairos kind of living, the right-now-ness of God’s presence. So we are fishers of people while we teach, or nurse, or parent young children, and when those verbs disappear, we are still fishers of people; our lives still participate in the deeper reality of love. From the moment our hearts are awakened to this calling, to our last living breath and then beyond, with whatever we have to offer, in whatever ways that looks, we are here with and for each other, because we’re following the one who is with and for us.

 

Even though John had just been arrested, the Kingdom of God is near. Even though bad things continue to happen, even though injustice and unfairness persist in our world, suffering is real and people are frequently cruel and more often thoughtless– no amount of darkness can put out the light, nothing can stop where this is heading. 


That morning Jesus came strolling onto their beach joyfully declaring, God’s reality is available right now, right in the midst of what is. Turn in a new direction, and trust in this good news.’  

Follow me, Jesus said to them that day, And I will make you agents of this reality in the world. 

To each of us, he says the same.

 

Amen.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Welcome Receiving This Life

My new book has been out for almost a month now.  

Enough time for a few folks to have read it. Enough time for us to get out from under the holidays and me to say again to the rest of us: Here it is, world!  

For individuals and congregations, people doubting faith or people leading faith, with devotions, prayers, liturgies, and practices, able to be read cover to cover or hopped around in, read for inspiration or used as planning resource, I am so excited to watch this book do whatever it's meant to do in the world. 

If you've read it and enjoyed it, would you be willing to leave a review on Amazon? And would you share with me how you're using it, or what in it spoke to you? 

If you are wondering about it and want to know more (not coming directly from me!), below is a lovely review from The Presbyterian Outlook. (Consider subscribing to the Outlook.) 

Kara

FROM THE PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK

BOOK REVIEWS

Receiving This Life: Practicing the Deepest Belonging

Kara Root’s message is this: Receive what is. Receive what is difficult. Receive what God is doing. Receive what God has already done. Receive what will be. Receive it all. — Philip J. Reed

BY PHILIP J. REED
PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 28, 2023


Kara Root
Fortress Press, 306 pages | Published December 19, 2023

Kara Root gives us a great gift: she empowers us to trust in the God who shows up! The heart of Receiving This Life lies in connecting the doctrine of revelation to our ability to receive the life this God offers. Doing so is not easy. We will be injured, and we will wound others. We will know weariness, loss, sickness, suffering, loneliness, fear and death. And yet there will be joy — the energy of being fully alive, connected and awake. Root’s message is this: Receive what is. Receive what is difficult. Receive what God is doing. Receive what God has already done. Receive what will be. Receive it all! Because we know God will show up, Root calls us to “open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing God right here and right now.”

Receiving This Life is a collection of professional and personal reflections; prayers; litanies and spiritual practices that include many wonderful vignettes. In a particularly poignant story, Root describes her daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Maisy took a first step into her new classroom and promptly burst into tears. “I can’t do it. No, Mama!” In a moment of desperation, Root said, “Maisy, guess what? God has a surprise for you today. When I pick you up, I want you to tell me what it was.”

Root, of course, had no idea what the surprise would be. She prayed all day. “(P)lease, please, please God, show up for Maisy today!” And God showed up with a surprise for Maisy every day that first week: a new friend, a shared dessert, a silly song that made the entire class laugh. Root asks her readers, “How will God surprise you today?”

Root’s pastoral imagination often expresses the reflections’ theological themes. Some selections address life circumstances, cultural events and the church year. She includes a back-to-school blessing, liturgy for collecting and turning off cell phones, and new words for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to be sung on Easter. Receiving This Life is full of fresh ideas for personal and corporate worship.

It is equally rich with new ways to articulate Christian faith and doctrine, including clear and profound theological understandings of creation, sin and judgement, Christology, and baptism, to name a few. Root is at her best when she shares rich and energizing theology about the God who shows up: “We want to store away the manna, have our spiritual pantries loaded with Costco-sized stockpiles of trust, even certainty ... But instead, God gives us for this day what we need today, what we could never manifest ourselves.”

Most books about church leadership today fall into two categories: hero stories of growing a church into Goliath-sized proportion or desperation stories of deconstructing faith and leaving church. Receiving This Life is neither. It is the story of a pastor who fulfills her calling by showing up, paying close attention to people God brings to her, and anticipating that God, too, will show up. Together, they experience the deepest belonging. As you read Receiving This Life, God just might show up in your life and leadership, too.

PHILIP J. REED

Philip J. Reed is a recently honorably retired pastor who is learning to read and sail with the wind, sometimes in a boat. He lives in Grosse Ile, Michigan.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Walking Humbly

Matthew 2:1-12

On Christmas Eve, an eight year old church member and I discussed the scandalous fact that even though all our nativity scenes place those wise men right up there in the hay near the manger, they likely did not arrive until Jesus was around two years old. His mind was blown. I didn’t even get to the part about there most likely women being in their group of undoubtedly more than three, because unlike a kids’ birthday party, three gifts doesn’t mean three people showed up.  

And when the Magi did find Jesus, it was in a house, on a street in the small, unremarkable town of Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph had temporarily settled.  Maybe little Jesus was playing with blocks on the floor of his dad’s shop, or sitting in the kitchen in his diaper, gnawing on a hunk of bread while his mom made lunch.  Maybe Jesus was toddling around the yard with the kids of the shepherd’s families, who had become good friends, being the only other people besides Uncle Zechariah and Aunt Elizabeth to know who Jesus really was. In any case, however ordinarily the day in Bethlehem had begun –sometime after morning chores and greeting neighbors, tending to animals, and work in the carpenter shop—suddenly the quiet neighborhood streets were flooded with the spectacular sounds, smells and sights, of a camel-filled caravan winding toward and piling up in front of Joseph’s house, an entourage of exotically-dressed travelers, excitedly conversing in a foreign language as they approach the front door.  
And even though our nativity scenes don’t give us this glimpse, the Christmas story is not complete until we celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Magi.
 
A friend recently gave me a book about walking. The book begins in frustration, that while so many other religions have maintained physical disciplines, like Hinduism’s yoga, Taoism’s tai chi, Buddhism’s kung fu, and so on, Christianity seems to be largely cerebral, without a physical component.  And yet, we have an incarnational faith, that is, we believe that God came embodied, into this life in a physical human form to share life with us, so to disconnect prayer from a bodily expression of it seems strange.  

Turns out that it seems perhaps we do, but it’s overlooked because it is the most basic, simple, ordinary human thing: walking.  Our faith story begins with God walking with Adam and Eve in the garden, and after they hide themselves from God in mistrust and shame, “walking with God” becomes synonymous throughout scripture with "holiness." Jesus' ministry began when he walked into the wilderness, and continued through walking, criss-crossing territory, meeting people on foot and face to face, and, when he wasn’t in a boat, Paul’s journeys walked him across the Mediterranean region. Historically, walking pilgrimages - first to Jerusalem and then to other holy sites - have been an integral part of the Christian faith. To walk in this way is to acknowledge that even more than the destination, it’s the walking towards that changes you. Finally, the early Church simply called Christianity “The Way.” Jesus says he is the way – he is the route and the journey.
 
So, meeting up with the Magi again this year, I had walking on my mind.  When the star appeared, these scholars of the sky, these practitioners of religion very unlike that of the Hebrew people, consulted their charts and spread the word, assembled their group, packed up their supplies and set out walking, for who knew how long, to go who knew where, and find who knew what. They walk for months on end, day after day, night after night, week after week, through all manner of weather and dangers, navigating through storms and hunger, wild animals and rugged terrain, the court of a despot and the skepticism of scholars, to seek the One promised for centuries to a people not their own. On they walk, trusting that what they are walking toward has somehow changed the trajectory of all humankind. And day after day, they are being changed by the walking itself, their lives being shaped for, and by, this impending encounter with the light of the world, the word made flesh, one slow step at a time.
 
When the visitors first and finally arrive at their perceived destination, it’s not like they think it will be. In the capital city at the seat of power, they are ready to publicly honor the majesty of this holy one. But they can’t find him. Of course, they assume, this great child who has come to change the world is already being honored by all the important people.  Of course, the leader of this land would even, perhaps, have him in the palace.  Instead, they found that nobody in Jerusalem had heard of him. And not only that, but the scholars and priests had to be summoned to look back at the prophesies and figure out what in the world these strangers were even talking about. 
And Herod, the insecure and unpredictable demagogue, is caught unaware, suddenly alerted that his authority may be usurped by some grand scheme that somehow caught the attention of people a world away but slipped by right under his nose. 
 
So, on they walk.  And when the Magi arrive in little Bethlehem, at the home of Joseph the carpenter, these impressive people from an extraordinary place kneel before the seemingly ordinary toddler on the lap of a peasant woman. And their shocking arrival and sincere worship must shake Mary and Joseph to the core, jostling them out of the daily routine and reminding them that this whole thing is so beyond them, and that they are controlling exactly none of it. 
 
And then, because of a dream, the Magi walk home by another road to bypass the raging Herod. And, because of a dream, Joseph will take Mary and Jesus and walk to Egypt, to live as refugees in a foreign land to protect this child from being killed, like so many others subsequently are, by Herod’s violent insecurity.
 
Life is hard. But we complicate it even more. We think we should know things and don’t, we think things that should be easy and aren’t. For better and worse, nobody really gets what they deserve, and so much of it is arbitrary and out of our control. Living is filled with guesswork, and we make terrible mistakes. Evil people often get power, and good people often suffer, and figuring out which way to go is frequently fraught, and our actions have unintended consequences, and we lose people, and we hurt people, and we try to do the right thing but struggle often to know what that is, and why, why can’t God be more obvious? So we think we have to crack the code, figure out how to do it right, learn the moves, like those who went before us did, right?
 
Turns out the central characters throughout our whole faith story were also just feeling their way along, responding to the circumstances, doing the best they could, adapting as they went, just like we are, every day.  They didn’t have anything figured out.  They were trying to live attuned to the deeper story, learning to pay attention, filled with longing and sorrow, and wonder, just like we are. And God directed them, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but mostly in the most basic, ordinary, everyday way, one regular, basic step at a time. None of them ever knew much further ahead than the next step because few of us ever do. Human beings live in time. We move one step at a time, trapped inside of time. But eternity has entered into time, so nevertheless, here on this journey, we are never alone.  And “the road is made by walking,” as they say.  
 
God came into this life, to walk with us, like we walk. In the confusion and the frustration, in the danger and the worry, in the unknown and the figuring it out as you go. This whole thing is beyond us; we are controlling exactly none of it. But every part of all of it is claimed for love, and filled with the presence of God-with-us. Jesus is the way, the route and the journey.   So to practice this faith and follow this Christ, we are to slow our pace to the speed of our soul, our basic humanity, to walk along, like the Magi did, one foot in front of the other, day after day, sometimes excited and feeling it – other times so not, but still, led onward and practicing trust. We learn from them to keep our feet on the ground, and our eyes on the sky. And little by little, we are changed by the walking. Made brave to face adversity, made humble to bow before majesty, made quick to reach across human barriers to see us all in the story of God, made open to dreams and wise to know when to switch routes.  

Whatever we navigate, however it comes, the work of God happens in and through us, one step at a time. This is holy work, walking humbly with God. And in inhabiting our lives, and bodies, and neighborhoods, and communities, we join our forbears in seeking the light of the world that the darkness cannot put out. And we become people ready to pay homage every time we find Christ where he is unexpectedly residing.

Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Lullaby Sung Over Us


A Christmas Eve Sermon in Two Parts...

Last February, our family went to visit the Holy Land. We stood in the town where Elizabeth greeted Mary and the child in her womb leapt for joy, and walked the streets where Joseph led the donkey through the darkness with his pregnant wife.  We looked up at the same sky that was filled with angels on the night Christ was born, over the very hills in Bethlehem where the shepherds were keeping sheep.  I brought back olive wood crosses for the congregation carved by people who trace their Christian ancestry back to those same shepherds, and we used them to pray with during Lent.

I say that because tonight, we cannot gather here apart from the poignant pain, violence and anguish people are suffering in the very place where Christ came into the world to bring peace to us all.  We belong to each other, all of us. All of us. And Christmas is shallow and stupid if it doesn’t have something to say to the real horrors of life, and the evil we human beings can do to one another.  

 

I have no more energy left for polite cheer, sentimental tradition and shallow “good will.”  If this all doesn’t mean something bigger and more powerful than death and destruction, then it’s just a mockery of those who are suffering, and I’d rather skip it.

 

So I want to begin tonight by saying, that it does. That what happens here, and all over the world this night, is a strange, subversive and upside-down power.  We’re here tonight to claim that God comes not with might and muscle, to destroy enemies and rule by force, but in weakness and vulnerability to be loved by we who love one another, to be killed by we who kill one another, and to take all the world’s suffering into God’s very being, so that nothing – not the worst that can happen – can separate us from love.

 

This Advent we’ve let Lullabies lead us. They’re sneaky, lullabies, unlike their gentle and sweet sound, lullabies’ power is fierce and grounding, linking us to the ancient song of joy that the universe still sings, giving shape and structure to our hope, and keeping us connected to God and each other because lullabies come from love, and trust in love, and lay over the tired beloved a blanket of love.

 

So all through Advent, we’ve been singing. We’re singing to stay connected to hope, to seek peace and justice, and to remember that this whole world and everyone in it belongs to God.  We’re singing to counter despair, cynicism, and meanness, to stay soft and open to the world that God loves, ready to be used in the service of love.  As we sing tonight, I want us not to be the one bearing the message, but the ones hearing God’s lullaby sung over us.

 Tonight we are here to receive the God who comes in. God comes into this moment. And in this moment when God comes in, we are joined together with all those who’ve gone before—from those we’ve each loved and lost, to those who lived these moments thousands ago that we’re recounting this evening, through all those in the centuries in-between, the ones who wrote these carols from the 4th to the 19th centuries, and all those who sang them through the world’s wars, storms, and tragedies, along with quiet and contented Christmases gone by, to all those who are singing them around the world this very day. We’re all connected, and we are all held in the love of the One whose story we this story we sing and tell tonight. 

 

So we receive that gift too, in whatever way it appears. Tears, laughter, ambivalence, silence – it’s all welcome here, as we, and they, and God, celebrate God breaking the barriers of life and death and coming into this life alongside us, with us, and for us.

 

Now, to prepare our hearts to receive, I want to turn to the carols, or, as we are hearing them tonight, the lullabies, themselves. 

 

A few years ago, when the world was feeling particularly exhausting, I was driving down the freeway with carols playing on the radio, and the line jumped out at me, “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” And I felt such longing arise in me that it brought tears to my eyes. Yes! I thought. I want this.

 

Because these songs that have been sung in the world for centuries, have become the background sound of shopping and movies, we’ve largely stopped hearing the words of truth and comfort about who God is and what God is doing. 

 

So we are going to pause a moment and prepare ourselves to really hear the words of these familiar carols. We are going to listen to the cosmic lullaby that is coming at us in many tunes tonight. 


For the next couple of minutes you’re invited to page through the bulletin with your highlighter and highlight some lines that resonate with your soul – a few messages you need particularly to hear, lines that ignite longing, or hope, hunger, or gratitude. Anything that has energy around it for you or jumps out at you, highlight it now. 

 

And then we’ll begin.



Following Lessons & Lullabies...


When our son Owen was born, the nurse handed Andy the tiny, swaddled child, red-faced and crying. Andy instinctively began bouncing him, and then spontaneously sang what was to become Daddy’s bedtime lullaby over Owen for years to come, “Owen dear, do not fear, do not fear, your Daddy’s here. You might be sad, you may be scared, but you’re not alone.


It is a fearful thing to live and one day die.  As my young nephew quipped to his mother, “I did not consent to being born.” We just begin, and one day, quite regardless of whether we consent to it or not, our earthly life will end. And from our first breaths, we already sense how precarious all this is. Even before we can say so, we already feel scared, and we feel sad, and we feel alone. 


Being human is fundamentally, existentially, terrifying.  If we’re not currently afraid, we undoubtedly have been, and we most certainly will be again. We are united in this human experience with Mary, with Joseph, with the shepherds, and the vulnerable Christ Child. With Palestinian children, and Israeli grandmothers, with Russian moms and Ukrainian dads, with all who suffer starvation and war, and all who are trapped in depression or entombed in addiction, with beloved ones whose minds and memories are slipping away, and with all those whose bodies are ravaged by illness, with those teetering on the threshold of unknown, and those grieving the loss of what was. All people, throughout all time, are, very often, afraid.  


Two thousand years ago, a child is born into a time of upheaval and strife, under the shadow of an oppressive empire, into an insecure and unstable moment, in a less than ideal delivery room far from home. Ready or not, the child comes.  His parents welcome him in pain and joy, acutely aware of their perilous circumstances.  


And what a dangerous thing it always is, bringing a child into this heartbreaking world, filling our hearts with love, and guaranteeing our lives will know loss and sorrow and so will theirs.  


Two thousand years ago, in the darkness a new mother sings a lullaby over her newborn son.  She does not know what lay ahead for him.  Shushing his cries as she bounces him in her arms, in her own mixture of wonder, exhaustion, and fear, the young mother gazes into the face of her tiny son and sings, Jesus, dear, do not fear. Do not fear, your mommy’s here. You might be scared, you may be sad, but you’re not alone.  


And in the way of human children, our God is welcomed in.


"The crux of our Christian faith is this mind-boggling story that the Almighty crept in beside us. Came into this world as a helpless baby, into the arms of those he came to save, to share this life with us, to be with us. And then Jesus dies, taking all that separates us from God, all destruction and brokenness, even death itself, into God’s very being. Then Jesus rises from the dead. And the power of death and division is shattered by the unquenchable light and incarnate love of the world. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."


There is nothing stronger than this. No army can defeat a mother’s love for her child. No technology or weapon is stronger than the bond between true friends. There is no terrorist or demagogue, no corruption or evil, no illness or suffering, of any kind, that can stop love.  All over the world, through next door neighbors, and kindergarten teachers, and great uncles, and little sisters, and strangers reaching out to help each other, the transformative power of love leaks between the cracks, and spills over the edges, and rises up between us with healing and tenderness, and even in the midst of terrible bondage, love sets us free.   And as anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you, not even death itself ends love. Love cannot be stopped. 


While nations rage and powers shake, in every place at every moment, love is breaking through, people are sitting with one another in their suffering, celebrating with each other in their joy, listening, seeing, sacrificing, embracing, joining God right where God already is. God’s love is embodied. We are part of that love. We are held in that love. This is God’s way.  From love we came and to love we will return. And in between, when we love, we are joining in the greatest force on earth.


Like a lullaby in the darkness, love holds us fast. This doesn’t make it feel any less like darkness.  But in that darkness, the light shines.  Because into that darkness God comes.  


Do not fear! The angelic chorus proclaims over the whole world, Do not fear, your God is here! You might be scared, you may be sad, but you’re not alone!


PRAYER

Holy One, we entrust ourselves, 

those we love dearly, 

all those we belong to throughout the planet, 

and the very world itself, 

into your arms, you who holds us all in love. 


Help us receive your love and care, 

and let your love shape our living.

Attune our hearts to the infinite and unbroken lullaby, 

sung by the Spirit over all the earth, 

embodied in God-with-us. 

Amen.


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Song of Joy (Advent 3)

December 17 - Advent 3

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

This is the week of Advent dedicated to joy. Joy is when our very innermost selves reverberate with God’s touch.  Last week we said “peace” means wholeness and fullness – life as God intends it to be. Joy is when that wholeness, that absolute connection to God and each other, is felt with a jolt.  It’s a momentary taste of life as it was meant to be. Anne Lamott says, “Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.” In the past we’ve called Joy “pre-membering” God’s future breaking in now, momentarily tasting what Hope, our theme the first week of Advent, articulates. 

But letting down your guard to be open to joy is extremely vulnerable. To take deep pleasure in a moment of true connection touches us in our very core. It can be scary to be this real, this alive.  We’re exposed as simply human, when so often we protect ourselves from this reality. 

 

Not to mention that these days, joyfulness might seem naive or out of touch.  With so much suffering and violence in the world, perhaps we think that if we’re seeking joy, we must not be paying attention. But scripture suggests it’s actually the other way around: When we are really paying attention, joy finds us.

 

“Rejoice always,” Paul says, but we tend to separate that from the next instruction, to “pray without ceasing.” This has been interpreted and attempted countless of ways over time. From the extreme, like the group that demands people turn away from an ordinary life to keep a 24-hour prayer and worship service going for decades, to the ancient practice of personal breath prayers, trying to match your breathing to scripture of repentance to God, so that it eventually constant prayer becomes an unthought practice, Christians have been trying to understand and practice this praying without ceasing business for millennia. 

 

We most often think of prayer as stepping out of the world momentarily to turn toward God, but Bonhoeffer says prayer is inextricable from our life in the world, merged with our concrete activity and relationships with others.  Christ comes into this world to share life with us, so we meet Christ as we share life with each other.  Prayer – or listening to God, attentiveness, availability -  happens in our concrete life, our daily work and activities. When Paul admonishes us to pray without ceasing is, Bonhoeffer describes this as “finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work.” 

 

Our prayer reaches beyond the deliberate times of pausing and addressing God, into all parts of every day, infusing meaning, into ordinary life, opening us to joy. So, to pray without ceasing actually means tuning into our belonging to both God and our neighbors, practicing awareness of our connection both to the One from whom our life comes and to those to whom our life flows.  When everything we do becomes a prayer in this way, Bonhoeffer describes it as, “a breaking through from the hard It to the gracious You.”

 

The “hard It” of the day can be horrifying. Right now, we dare not turn our gaze away from Gaza and the terror unfolding minute by minute there. But that’s today’s hard It. Yesterday we were looking at Ukraine – which is still a living nightmare, but our limited attention spans can’t hold everything at once, so we pick and choose which It disasters and crises to highlight. Mass shootings are stacking up multiple per day, people seeking a safe place to live are dying on the seas, and the week before Christmas we keep toying with 50 degrees above zero—our planet is in crisis. 

That’s to say nothing of the more personal realities we carry with us like a heavy cloak around our shoulders – the heartbreaking struggle of someone we love, our own private rage or sorrow, the burdens of addiction or separation – it’s all the It – the ground on which our lives unfold, the stuff of working and relating we do every day as human beings.  

Mix all that intense stuff up with the mundane list-making, germ-fighting, money-counting, deadline-meeting, chore-completing, gift-buying, worry-piling, traffic-fighting pressures of modern day-to-day life in a noisy and busy holiday season, and joy can feel remote and inaccessible, if not superfluous or shallow, pumped through tinny speakers in big box stores, or flashed before our eyes in sappy advertisements interrupting our binge-watching, and gradually the yous around us blend into the hard It that serves as the backdrop of our joyless lives.

 

But this is to mistake mindless cheer or self-satisfying distraction for joy, keeping us focused fully on the It, as though It is all there is. Joy, as the prophets foretell, joy that Advent invites us to hush still and listen for, is a deep, timeless, nevertheless reality that breaks into time. The You who is underneath and behind the It - all the its that have ever been, as dark as they have ever been - the You who sang the world into being, is here now, is coming, is never absent the darkness, but bringing, always, light, in fact, IS the light the darkness cannot put out.  Joy tunes us into the powerful song underneath.

 

Mike Woods, who preached here the first Sunday in Advent, reminded me of a scene near the end of Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, when Charles Wallace and the unicorn, Gaudior (which is Latin for joy), are on a difficult mission. As they gallop through a starry galaxy, Charles Wallace struggles to stay awake and Gaudior cautions him, “Do not go to sleep.” An exhausted Charles Wallace replies, “I’m not sure if I can help it.”

 

“‘Sing, then,’ Gaudior commanded. ‘Sing to keep yourself awake.’” And with that, “the unicorn opened his powerful jaws and began to sing WITH the stars.” (and heaven and nature sing…)

 

Singing in harmony, the boy and the unicorn “moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and he realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy.”

 

There is the terrible and understandable temptation to ignore the deeper song, forget the bigger picture, overlook the longer story. To let the hard It of the moment fill our whole horizon, blocking us from the You of God, the yous of each other, drowning out the song of the stars and the universe. We forego joy for foreboding, trade trust for fear, let ourselves be overwhelmed by the darkness, and cease praying instead of praying without ceasing.

 

But every day, the God who breaks in, is breaking in. Jesus came that we might have his joy, joy complete, anyway joy, the gift of awareness of our aliveness, moments of awakened resonance between the ourselves and all else. 

 

When the podcast in your headphones makes you stop and double over on the sidewalk gasping in laughter, and when your child steps out of the airport’s sliding doors and makes his way to you.  When you ask, and ask and ask, What would make my heart sing? And seek to live that. When, in the midst of your dad’s funeral, the congregation sings the line, “though Satan should buffet” and your teary sister beside you bursts into loud giggles and drags you down with her, and when the spectacular pinks and oranges of the early morning sun stops you still at your window, you’re hearing the eternal song of joy breaking into time. 

 

You’re sensing the God whose love is our origin and destination, puncturing the hard It to reach our soft and tender yous, that raw and vulnerable place inside, all wrinkled and unshaven and without make-up, where our childlike wonder still nests.   

 

We join that song when we listen to another person, unhurried and available. We are praying without ceasing when we make eye contact, human to human with a stranger, or hold onto the humanity of those we oppose, keeping them a you instead of making them It. Receiving the moments of transformative laughter and quiet awe, is praying without ceasing. And in all of these ways we make ourselves available to joy, which the universe has not yet lost.

 

Paul is saying that the will of God in Jesus Christ is for us to live tapped into the deeper aliveness with which the whole universe reverberates. To rejoice always, to live in joy.  And to seek out this reality by praying continually, by embracing and not resisting the Holy Spirit nudging us toward others, toward hope, toward healing, toward wholeness. To not resist being corrected and harmonized again with our true identity as beloved, and our true purpose of calling the world back to its belovedness. To recognize evil and oppose it, to seek out good and grasp onto it. And through it all, to trust that the One who is faithful will keep being so.

 

God’s future that is even now breaking in. Beloved, tune into the mighty orchestra, in which each life is an instrument. Stay unarmed and open to being seized by defiant, nevertheless joy. Practice trusting in our belonging to the You who holds us all and all the yous that pass before us each day. And on behalf of a broken and weary world—a beautiful and beloved world—let down your guard and join in the song: rejoice.

 

Amen. 

Song of Peace - Advent 2


DECEMBER 9, 2023 - Reflection for Contemplative Prayer, Advent Week 2

Isaiah 40:1-5

Here comes Advent, right out in front of Christmas, bringing its on-purpose darkness like a blanket, gently laying it over us no matter what else is going on around us or within us.  Advent is the whisper in the darkness, showing and telling us something that is real but hard to see or hear in the glare of LED light and the non-stop noise of our televisions and smart phones, breaking news, speeding traffic, neon geopolitics, florescent distractions, and 24-7 insistent commentary.

The darkness of Advent is a gift. A desperately needed pause.  To wait on purpose for Jesus to come.  Advent speaks tenderly and offers Comfort. Truth. Honesty. Hope. Peace.

 

It’s a hiatus that takes in reality as we know it, but turns our gaze to another reality too, a deeper one, a realer one, the one that lasts from the beginning to the end and holds us in between, even when we are not seeing it. Advent immerses us in this reality, prompting us to seek the God who comes in.

 

Advent is the night shift nurse after the painful surgery, the quiet, turned-down sheets of healing sleep.  There is nothing here in the darkness that isn’t out there in the light – the wounds remain and the recovery continues.  But here, in the shelter of Advent, waiting for God, we can talk about the hard things and the sad things and the confusing and frustrating things, where they don’t get to make us afraid.  


And where fear is banished, hope is born. And peace grows stronger, and joy is tangible. When Love casts out fear, we are brought back to God’s reality, which looks so different from the red-faced blustering and flippant annihilation of the world.

 

Advent slows the pulse, pulls down the shades, and gently shushes us still.  It readies us for a God who comes in in a ridiculously weak and vulnerable way – a senseless and undermining and eternal way. Not to rescue us out, but to share this life with us, to weave redemption right in the midst of it all and keep it all moving toward love.  

 

Comfort my defeated people, God says. Tell them I see them.  And they’ve paid way more in suffering than they ever deserved for whatever they’ve done. Speak tenderly, though, they’ve been through a lot.  And they’re pretty hard on themselves. Gently, let them know they are free. Lead them into the way of peace.

 

This is the week of Advent that we orient toward peace. Peace is wholeness, fullness, true relationship with God and one another. Peace is life as God intended.  It is the quality of everyone belonging to God and belonging to each other.


Last week, Mike Woods preached about Hope, and invited us into Advent through lullabies.

He said, 


“Lullaby power is about being so grounded in what we believe in, what we love and live for, that we cannot be dragged down into meanness or despair. It holds our hope intact. Let’s think of lullabies as containers of hope.

Singing lullabies in the dark makes us ready to bring to bear in an instant, everything we stand for, everything we love, the principles we live by, the way we wish the whole world could work. This comes from a lifetime of singing, which is THE subversive thing we do in churches: singing with joy, singing in the face of death - singing to build our courage – singing hope into the shadows – singing of a world about to turn -  singing to remember the kind of world we want to live in and hand on, and be the kind of people we God made us to be.  So, the question isn’t whether or not we’re singing a song, the question is, “Are we in tune?”

Tonight we quiet the noise around us to hear the song. And we prepare our hearts to hear the song of peace all week long. 
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. This is the promise. Tonight we listen to the promise of peace.

What do I love?

  Each morning, the first thing I do is reach for my phone. I look at how good of a sleep I got according to my watch data, I read my emails...