What Is Left Behind

Scripture Passage:  Psalm 51: 1-3, 7-13 (Ash Wednesday Psalter)

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me .Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

So, how quickly did you wash them off?  Or were you saved from getting ashes by a Zoom Ash Wednesday Service.  It doesn’t matter.  We know.  We know that yesterday was our day of repentance.  Yesterday was our day of acknowledging that yes, indeed, we are sinful beings.  Goodness, Lent has barely begun and we’re already talking about sin?   We have begun the journey again. It is a journey of giving up and giving in, of wandering in the wilderness, of stopping or at least slowing down enough to let God’s Spirit begin once again to seep into our being. So why do we have to talk about sin?

But sin? Who wants to talk about sin? I mean, I’m Methodist. We are “grace” people, after all! We are forgiven people. Isn’t that what we’re told? God’s mercy is infinite. Jesus took care of all that, right? Really? So, you have no part in this? You just want to go on your merry way? The truth is, what relationship with God would we have if we truly thought we were either sinless or our sins were just hosed off of us without us even knowing what had happened? I mean, what in the world is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? But the fact that God loves me not just in spite of me but BECAUSE of me is a much deeper understanding of God. This is a God who is not waiting for me to clean my act up so I can get on the yellow brick road toward a grace-filled life. This is a God who walks with me down this rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous trail through a wilderness I do not understand and showers me with grace even when I am muddied and worn by sin. This is a God who doesn’t just wait for me to return but takes me by the hand and leads me home no matter what I’ve done or who I’ve been. 

There I said it—sin, Sin, SIN! Hmmm! Steeple didn’t fall off, stained glass windows still there, me, still standing. I think even the Zoom connection is still working.  In this season of wilderness wanderings, it is our time to acknowledge that yes, we mess up; that yes, we make the wrong choices (I’m hoping God doesn’t yet regret that whole free will decision way back when!); that, yes, we sin. But the point is that we also choose—we CHOOSE to follow God on this journey. Now, at the risk of speaking for the Great I AM, I would much rather have a relationship with one who CHOSE to follow rather than one who knew nothing else. Choosing God and being innocent are not the same. In fact, it is from our sin, from the dust of our lives, that we choose God.

Do you remember the so-called “Second Creation account”?  It says that God created humans from the dust of the ground, from the dirty, yucky dust that blew uncontrollably across the land.  The dust moved freely from one place to another carrying the beginnings of life whether or not we knew it.  And then God breathed life into it and it became something new, a New Creation made in the very image of God.  Dust…dirty, yucky, dust…the leftovers, that which remains, that which stays behind clinging to that on which it lands.  We try to wash it away or wipe it down or Febreze it to give it a fresh, clean scent or just sweep it under the rug (you know, with the other dust).  But, no matter what, it ALWAYS returns.  And yet, this season begins by calling us to return to it.  And then we pray to God that we might somehow get a clean heart, a fresh start, a new beginning. 

 So, once again, we acknowledge that we are both in need of God and that God loves us more than we will ever fathom. Now, you would think those two scenarios would fit together rather well. But somewhere along the way, we have somehow replaced our need for God with our need to be perfect. Albert Outler called it “overreaching”, getting in God’s business. See, God doesn’t need us to be perfect, or sinless, or innocent. God desires us to choose to follow. God desires us to be who God calls us to be.

And so, the pathway looms ahead. It’s not always familiar territory. And, in fact, we usually have to leave part of what we carry and hold so tightly behind. We usually tend to travel too weighted down to notice where we need to go. So, give up what you need to give up or take on what you need to take on. And remember when you felt the ashes on your skin to remind you who you are and also whose you are. Let them be a blessing and a beginning. And know that God calls you away from the self that you have imagined. And begin to walk. It is a journey that is hard and difficult and takes you through darkness. But it is a journey that leads to life, that leads to beginning again.

And so this day, we return.  We return to our beginnings.  Rather than expecting God to “wipe us clean”, this day calls us to expect God to create us yet again.  We return to dust so that God can take us, breathe life into us once again, creating in us a clean heart and a new and right Spirit.  Today we become dust once again, moving freely and then clinging to God yet again.  

Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in “Speaking of Sin”)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Both And

Ash Wednesday Lectionary Passage:  Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you… 16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So, several years ago, I heard some pieces of an interview with a political figure questioning another well-known political figure’s religion.  The claim was that it was difficult to discern whether or not this person practiced “legitimate Christianity”.  Really?  And what in the world, pray tell, is “legitimate Christianity”?  And how do you know?  I mean, especially since we’re apparently suppose to be in our rooms with the door shut praying in secret!  But then, aren’t we supposed to be out in the world showing the love of Christ?  Whew!  Well, regardless of the fact that it must have been a slow news day, sometimes it’s just a whole lot of mixed messages, isn’t it?

Today we begin this season of mixed messages, the season of “both-and”.  First of all, Lent itself, literally “springtime”, means that we begin clearing all of the winter debris that has grown and gathered in the flowerbeds and leaving room for new life.  This season is about both pruning and fertilizing, cutting and nurturing.  It’s about cleaning out and freshening up.  Theologically, this season brings images of walking through darkness toward the light, through the wilderness toward home, of giving up and taking on, of death and new life.  We are told to let go and to take up, to lay down and to rise up.  We are told to breathe in and to breathe out.  And now, to pray in secret and go out and serve the world. 

So, is your head spinning?  Maybe that’s why this season is so difficult.  There’s no baby; there’s no star; there’s not even, when you think about, anybody around to tell us not to be afraid.  No one comes to tell us what is going to happen.  There is no appropriately convenient Lenten Annunciation.  We just have to start walking that pathway toward Jerusalem with both assurance and humility.  But this time, in many ways we walk alone.  This God who has walked with us every step of the way has seemed to have gone on at least a few steps ahead of us.  Where Advent kept pushing us back, telling us to wait, in many ways, this season of Lent is pulling us kicking and screaming into something we do not understand, something that, given the choice, we might choose not to do, choose to go back into our room and shut the door.  And yet, we’re told to follow.

I’ve shared this story before, but it is one of my favorites:  A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs.  When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes.  But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”

Talk about mixed messages!  We are dust and ashes, resembling that cast-off debris.  And we are loved more than we can even fathom.  We are so very human, struggling with greed and hubris, with some inflated sense of our own worth that makes us think we are better than others or deserve more than others, makes us think that there is some sort of “legitimate Christianity” in which we are called to participate to prove our very worth.  And, yet, somewhere in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of all those things that we do not do or those things we do not do well, there is a piece of the Divine.  Bishvili nivra ha’olam.  Do you even know how much you are loved?  Do you even know how to imagine a God that has given you the world?

Perhaps the mixed messages are because we cannot let go, cannot see what God is offering, cannot fathom how much we are loved.  Today is the day when we proclaim we are dust, when we confess our sins and lay prostrate before the ruins of our lives.  Today is the day when we take burned palm branches and allow them to be smeared across our forehead in the faint shape of a cross.  Today is the day that we remember we are dust, remember that we are particles of waste that are left from what was.  Today is the day when we go in our room and shut the door.  But the only reason we do this is so that we will stop what we are doing, look at our lives, and know how very much we are loved.  Bishvili nivra ha’olam.  For your sake, the world was created. 

Faith is about mixed messages–letting go and taking on, human and Divine, death and life, sending and return.  Perhaps this Season of Lent is about realizing that there is a Holy and Sacred “And” connecting it all.   Lent is not about giving things up; it is about emptying your life that you may be filled.  Lent is not about going without; it is about making room for what God has to offer.  And today is not about clothing yourself in the morbidness of your humanity; it is about embracing who you are before God.

There was once a question posed to a group of children:  “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people in the world were green, what color would you be?”  A little girl thought for a moment.  Then her face brightened, and she replied:  “I’d be streaky!”  We would all be streaky.  To be human is to be a mixture of the unmixable, to be streaky.  It is to live incomplete, yet yearn for completion; to be imperfect, yet long for perfection; to be broken, yet crave wholeness.  It is to live with mixed messages.  And as we begin what is essentially our own journey to the cross, we note that it is one that not only recognizes but embraces the fact that there are many conflicting and disjointed ideals that God, in God’s infinite mystery and wisdom, allows to exist together—arrogance and humility, good and bad, faith and doubt, human and divine, cross and resurrection, death and life—none can exist without its counterpart.  

Faith is about living a life of breathing out and breathing in.  Neither can exist alone.  So…remember…you are dust and ashes…breathe out…..For you the world was created…breathe in….

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

A Thin Place

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 9: 2-9 (Transfiguration B)

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 

In the big scheme of things, we’ve gotten to this point pretty fast.  Here it is—a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants turns out to be the Son of God.  He grows up, becomes a teacher, a healer, and capable of hosting large groups of people with just a small amount of leftovers.  He asks a handful of random people to become his followers, to help him in his mission.  They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this great person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing or where they were really going on this incredible journey on which he was taking them.  And then one day, Jesus leads them up to a mountain, away from the interruptions of the world. 

And there on that mountain, the clothes that Jesus was wearing change, taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding, white, whiter than anything that they had ever seen before.  And on the mountain appeared Elijah and Moses, representing the Law and the prophets, the forerunners of our faith, standing there with Jesus.  It’s as if all that is and all that was came together in this one climactic moment. No longer is there any separation between what came before and what happens in this moment; no longer can the Old Testament and New Testament be looked upon without each other to tell the story.

Peter wanted to build three dwellings to house them.  I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God.  I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do.  But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding.  He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle, a sanctuary—for the holy.  For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed.  And from the cloud that veils them comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”  “Listen to him!”  OK, be honest.  What would have been your reaction?  I’m thinking our first response would not have been overly profound: “Wow!”  Our second response?  “This is it; we are surely going to die.”  

And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight and Jesus was standing there alone, completely unveiled.  In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle shrouded in the cloud was the place where God was.  Here, this changes.  Jesus stays with them and the cloud dissipates.  Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world.  And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.  And, more importantly, we are invited into it.  No longer are we shielded from God’s Presence.  We become part of it, a mirror for all to experience and encounter the living God.

And so the disciples start down the mountain.  Jesus remains with them but they kept silent.  The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come.  The disciples would know when to tell the story.  They saw more than Jesus on the mountain.  They also saw who and what he was.  And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw.  For now, he would just walk with them.  God’s presence remains.          

The Celtic tradition would call them “thin places”, places where that so-called “veil” that separates the earth and heaven, the ordinary and the sacred, the human and the Divine, becomes so thin, so translucent, that one gets a glimpse of the glory of God.  It is those times and places in our lives where God’s Presence becomes almost palpable and where we cannot help but be transfigured into what God calls us to be.  Perhaps it is those times when we don’t just think about God but rather create space enough for the sacred and the Divine to penetrate our lives and our flesh in the deepest part of our being.  And, therein, lies our transfiguration.  In essence, we were right.  We die.  We die to the way we are and we become someone different. 

The Greek term for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis”, deriving from the root meaning “transformation”.  We know that word as it relates to science and nature.  Most of us probably think of the lowly caterpillar who, given enough time, becomes a beautiful butterfly.  Metamorphosis is, literally, to change into something else.  There is no going back.  The butterfly will never again reenter the cocoon. 

Those thin places in our lives, those places where the holy spills into our being, where we finally know that we are not called to understand but to see, to see what God has put before us—those are the places and times that provide those mountain-top experiences.  But we’re not just limited to one.  They are there all the time.  God’s Presence is always with us.  We just have to learn to see in a new way.  We have to learn to see that blinding, awe-inspiring, mysterious glory of God.    

The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live.  You know, I think they were right.  No one can see God and remain the same.  We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud.   The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples.  We’d rather not really have “all” of God.  We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives.  We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives, perhaps even hold on to that cocoon a little longer than we should.  We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change.  We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze.  In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.  God is not something that we are supposed to understand, or figure out, or control.  God is awe and wonder and mystery.  God is God.  And encountering God is the point of our story.  It’s the pinnacle, the thin place, the climax.

This account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to me that it should be the climax of Jesus’ story—the quintessential mountain-top experience.  After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him.  But there’s a reason that we read this on the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey.  In some ways, it IS perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey.  Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now.  And then the lights dim.  Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking.    

Jesus walked with the disciples in the silence.  The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom.  As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem.  As they walked down the mountain, the holy city lay before them and Galilee was forever behind them. 

Next Wednesday, Lent begins.  The Transfiguration, the climax, is only understood in light of what comes next.  We are nearing the end of our Epiphany journey.  We are nearing the end of that season of warm illumination.  The light is now almost blinding to the ways of this world.  We have been to the mountaintop and we have seen the glory of God.  And we have been changed.  There is no going back.  The only way is through Jerusalem.  We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross.  We must do the same. If we stay here, we miss out.  God has gone on to Jerusalem.  It is a journey through a wilderness, a journey through something we do not understand.  So we have to follow with new eyes.     

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

SOME HOUSEKEEPING: OK, believe it or not, Lent is upon us. The wilderness awaits. So, I’m going to try to commit to writing every day for Lent, beginning Ash Wednesday. Here’s your part. Read them every day. Let’s make it a journey that we take together. And pray for me. (Lent is A LOT of writing!) And, if you find one meaningful, “like” it or comment. (That moves it up the magic Google search engine!) So, I’ll meet you in the wilderness! S…

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Breathe…

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 29-39

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

So, this Scripture has LOTS of stuff going on, doesn’t it?  In one passage, Jesus leaves the synagogue, goes to someone’s house, heals a woman, eats dinner, cures all these people that showed up at the door, and then finally (finally!) in the dark of the early morning gets to go off by himself to pray. Jesus is depicted as a never-tiring, all-encompassing, always-present healer and teacher that was always open to offering his heart to others in love.  If this is the life that we are supposed to live, I don’t know about you, but as much as I want to live a life based on the life of Jesus, it sort of seems a little exhausting.  Is this what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?

This story seems very chaotic, almost a frenzy of chaotic clamoring as people try to get to Jesus.  And the disciples were no help.  I mean, Jesus had already cured everyone who had been brought to him and they apparently ran out and gathered more.  In fact, the passage says that the “whole city was gathered at the door”.  The whole city?  (“We need you.  Come now.  Houston is at your door!)  But this time, it says that he cured “many”—not all–many.  So maybe Jesus’ purpose was not to do everything for everyone but rather to show us a way to live that aligned with the life that God envisioned for us.

And, so, in the morning, before dawn, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went to a deserted place, a place without the crowds, a place where he could pray and be alone with God.  I think this is the high point of the passage.  Because here we see a very human, very vulnerable, and (I would think) very tired Jesus who seeks direction and deeply desires to spend time with God.  We see a Jesus that needs to stop and spend time alone in prayer and thought—just like we do.  And there he prayed…

But, alas, even Jesus did not have the luxury of unlimited time for himself and his prayer life.  We are told that Simon and the others literally hunted him down. (Hunted him down?!?)  You can imagine it: “Come on, Jesus, everyone is looking for you, everyone needs you…what are you doing out here by yourself when there’s so much work to be done.”  (OK, I think this is rather humorous!)  Jesus’ answer?  (Wait for it!)  “So, they’re all looking for me in town?  OK, then let’s go somewhere else.”  (GREAT answer!)  Because after all, his mission was to spread the Gospel, not to get “bogged down” in answering every need of the town.  I mean, that’s why he had called all these disciples.  What were they doing? What a great lesson this could provide for us!  Jesus did not feel the need or the compulsion to be “all things to all people”.  His mission was to be who God called him to be. 

So what does this mean for us?  We understand that we are called to serve others, that we are called to healing and teaching and loving our neighbors, that we are called to be part of changing the world. Jesus showed us that.  But Jesus also showed us that we are also called to a deserted place, to prayer and solitude, to a close and personal relationship with God.  And, for most of us, that deserted place is much harder to find amidst the crowds that are lined up, clamoring and chaotic, outside our own door.

But then the words of the commandment return to us.  “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.”  Sabbath rest is not vacation.  It is not a nap or even just a break from the day to day.  And it is not even limited to a specific day of the week.  It is rather setting aside a time with God so that we will experience re-creation, just as Jesus did away from everyone else.

The Hebrew term for “Sabbath” is Shabbat, which essentially means “to cease or desist”.  It means to stop: to stop work, to stop worrying, to stop possessing, to stop running, to stop trying to be God and working so hard to ensure our future as we would like it to be.  It means to stop creating, which is exactly what God did in the first chapter of Genesis.  It means to stop and look around and see all that there is to see.

The term Shabbat also means “to rest”, to enter into the rhythm of life in which God created and invited us to live.  Our fast-paced, driven society often tries to convince us that this is a sign of weakness, of laziness, a characteristic of someone who will never succeed or get ahead.  But we often forget that life is about rhythms and cycles that support and renew each other.  Jesus knew that and, in this passage,, tries to show the disciples and ultimately us just that.

In her book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly”, Marva Dawn tells the story of a wagon train on its way from St. Louis to Oregon.  Its members were devout Christians, so the whole group observed the habit of stopping for the Sabbath day.  Winter was approaching quickly, however, and some among the group began to panic in fear that they wouldn’t reach their destination before the heavy snows.  Consequently, several members proposed to the rest of the group that they should quit their practice of stopping for the Sabbath and continue driving onward seven days a week.  Well, this proposal triggered a lot of contention in the community, so finally it was suggested that the wagon train should split into two groups—those who wanted to observe the Sabbath and those who preferred to travel on that day.  The proposal was accepted, and both groups set out and traveled together until the next Sabbath day, when one group continued while the other remained at rest.  Guess which group got to Oregon first.  You’re right.  The ones who kept the Sabbath reached their destination first.  Both the people and the horses were so rested by their Sabbath observance that they could travel much more vigorously and effectively the other six days of the week.

We are not meant to just go and go non-stop.  God didn’t create us for that.  In fact, God didn’t create ANY of creation for that.  All of creation is full of seasons, full of that rhythm of doing and resting, growing and fallow, birth and death.  Jesus knew that.  And so even though there was still more work to do, he went to a deserted place.  And there he stopped, and rested, and prayed…

A legend relates that “at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, [God] said to them:  My children!  If you accept the Torah and observe my commandments, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession.  And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou will give us if we obey Thy Torah?  The world to come.  Show us in this world an example of the world to come.  The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.”  Abraham Heschel says that “unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath [rest] while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.  Sad is the lot of [the one] who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.”

That is why Jesus went to the deserted place—not to just run away from the crowds, but to bask in the beauty of Sabbath rest, to glimpse the mystery of the world to come and have a clearer vision of how to live.  And that is why we are all called to our own deserted place—to our own times of ceasing and rest and basking in Sabbath holiness.  Because the only way to prepare our bodies for healing, our minds for teaching, and our hearts for loving is to set aside a time when our souls can become one with God and just for a moment glimpse the beauty of the world to come.

Aristotle once said “we are what we repeatedly do.”  So do we want to be this wild, chaotic, almost frantic way we often live our life?  Or do we want to breathe in the presence of God, who fills us and leads us to life?   So go to your deserted place and be blessed with Sabbath joy, renewed in Sabbath holiness, and enfolded with the eternity of Sabbath peace.  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  It is the world to come.  It is that home to which we journey. It is who you are. Breathe…

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths. (Etty Hillesum)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Unsaid

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Can you hear me now?…Can you hear me now?…Can you hear me now?…Remember that Verizon campaign with that now famous slogan.   It lasted for nine years and always showed a guy going to different places with his cell phone to show what fabulous network reception Verizon had.  He’d be out in a field or down in a hole or in some sort of tunnel and with those words, would test out how well his phone worked.  I suppose it was a fairly clever advertising campaign for the phone itself.  But it also acknowledged that there are other factors in play when it comes to trying to hear someone.  There’s the instrument of hearing itself.  There’s the distance between the hearer and what he or she is trying to hear.  And then there are those things that get in the way, whether they are physical impediments that stop the sound or other sounds and voices that interfere.  As we know, hearing is not that easy.  It involves listening and sometimes that’s not as clear as it sounds.  Sometimes we, too, have to hone our reception capabilities.  

But how do you hear the voice of God in the midst of this noisy, chaotic world?  Jesus…Jesus showed us that.  If we just pay attention, Jesus taught less about how to act and more about how to listen to the voice of God.  At first reading, our Gospel passage for this week seems to be about some sort of exorcism of demons or some sort of evil spirits.  Now, admittedly, that’s just downright odd for us.  But before we relegate it to the status of a B-rated horror flick, let us look at it from the standpoint of the one who Jesus healed rather than the demons themselves. 

Think about it.  I don’t think this was what we think of as “demonic possession”.  This is not “The Shining”.  This person was an interruption.  He didn’t fit.  He didn’t belong.  He was in the way of proper society and right religion.  But not only did Jesus acknowledge him but he also welcomed him and healed him.  Yes, the world as it was known with its comfortable rules and its “right” ways of being was ending.  Even that which doesn’t “belong” is being redeemed.  God is gathering everything in so that it can be re-created—even, I suppose the demons, whatever those might be.

We are told that Jesus brought an unquestioned authority to his teaching.  What was that?  Well of course, it was the Word of God.  But what does that mean?  It was not an overpowering; it was not a violent overtaking; it was a silencing, a silencing of the powers and voices of this world that are not part of that vision that God holds.  The Greek word is the same one used to depict the way Jesus calmed the storm, created order out of chaos.  Maybe that where we’re called to be.  Maybe that’s how God speaks—in the silences, when we’re listening.  You see, Jesus’ teaching was not just about words; it was about transformation.  It was about taking that which did not belong and speaking it into being again.  It was about silencing those voices that were in the way of hearing the voice that we’re called to hear.  It’s about clearing those things from our lives that are so loud that we can’t listen to that which we’re supposed to be listening.   Shhh!  Can you hear me now?

Listening is about more than just words.  A listening faith affirms that God sees more than we see, imagines more than we imagine, and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.  We’d like this voice to which we’re called to listen to be clear and concise and controllable.  If we’re honest, we’d like to be able to turn it off once in a while when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.  But that’s not how it works.  Changing the world (and changing ourselves) is sometimes messy and wild and even dangerous.  Living into God’s vision might sometimes mean that we have to speak the voice of God and probably more likely that we will actually be called to silence our own perceptions and desires and fears that the world might not be what we think it should look like so that we can hear God speaking our Creation into being once again.  Our main work is listening, rather than speaking.  In fact, on some level, we have neglected to perfect the language of listening.  We have not learned to empty our filled-up lives so that God can speak them into being.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a little book called When God Is Silent that is so full of words and thoughts that we people of faith need to hear.  In it, she quotes French philosopher Max Picard who claimed that silence was the central place of faith, the place where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it.  Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation.  We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again.  She speaks of silence as the womb from which we came and so returning to it, is to allow ourselves to be recreated.

We need to remember that faith is not about affirming our old shopworn lives.  It’s about newness; it’s about re-creation; it’s about following God down pathways that we’ve never walked before.  Faith is drifting off a little in a sermon and then finding yourself in a new land. Faith is about singing a song that you’ve never heard before and realizing that in the deepest part of you, you already know the tune.  Faith is about hearing unexpected voices say things that we never thought we’d hear.  Faith is listening and learning when to speak and when to hear.  And the more faithfully we listen to the voice within us, the better we will hear what the world is trying to tell us and what God envisions that we should hear.

So where are those voices to which we should be listening?  I think they’re here, all around us.  They are out there on the street.  They’re on that chaotic mess that we call television and they are all over the internet.  They’re in the sanctuary and they’re on the Zoom call and they’re in the streaming worship to which you’ve become so accustomed.  They are there.  But we have to learn to hear the voices that God is calling us to hear.  God is not silent.  God is straining to be heard by us above all the other voices.  But knowing which voice is one to which we should listen is deep within us.  In the moment of silence when we begin to hear, the words settle into our hearts and begin to be claimed and shaped into who we were meant to be.  And, through it all, we “unsay” ourselves so that God can re-create us. So, can you hear me now?

God speaks in the silence of the heart.  Listening is the beginning of prayer. (Mother Teresa)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

It’s About More Than the Fishing

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 14-20

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

So, I have to be honest.  I’ve never really liked fishing.  I like the thought of it and I love to eat fish and I understand the relaxation and the spiritual component that it holds for some people.  But I’ve just never really been big on the actual act of fishing.  When I was little, part of our ranch had a lake on it that my Grandfather had put in with the specific intent of having a place to fish.  And my brother and I each had a fishing pole in the truck so that we would always be prepared to fish.  (Yes, that was what I wanted to do was always be prepared to fish!)  Even then, I didn’t get it.  It was either really hot or really cold or really windy and usually we got in trouble for making too much noise and tipping the fish off that we were in their vicinity. And then there was that whole fish-cleaning thing!

My grandfather had this little boat that he used to lay trout lines across the lake and then part of going to the ranch with him was getting in this little boat and sitting there quietly and very still, feeling either too hot or too cold or too bored, while he slowly and painstakingly went across the lake checking to see if one of the hooks had a fish on it.  We always wanted to take the boat up and down the lake but usually we just went across and back along the lines. I have to confess that I always thought that was sort of cheating—laying the fishing line out for the fish to bite when you weren’t even working for it.  I mean, these poor fish would think no one was around and that they had just miraculously happened upon some random worm and then they were hooked.  But I would sit there for what seemed like an eternity as we went across the lake.  Like I said, I never really got fishing.  In fact, I didn’t enjoy it at all.  But, truth be told, those are wonderful memories.  Because it wasn’t about the fishing. It was about spending time with my grandfather, sitting in our little boat trying to be quiet.  And looking back on it, he could have bought fish at a store.  Maybe he just wanted to spend time with us. See, I don’t think it was about the fishing. 

So, in the passage for this week, do you think Simon and Andrew and James and John got up that morning planning to be approached by the Son of God?  I mean, really, they were just minding their own business, trying to eek out a living like the rest of us, trying to perfect this art of fishing.  And, really, how many people plan their day around God calling them?  I’m sure they all had some other plan in mind.  Well, there is an old Jewish proverb that reads “whenever someone says, “I have a plan,” God laughs.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that most of us do not plan to be a prophet or a disciple or even a heavily-involved church member.  Most of us barely plan to do what it is we do.  And when we have everything perfectly planned, when we’re not really paying attention to anything but our carefully-hewed pathway, God calls.  Now not all of us pick up our stuff and start following immediately.  Who are we kidding? Almost NONE of us do that.  Maybe God has that response of ours already sort of baked in.  Because so many of us pretend that we didn’t hear it, or convince ourselves that it was meant for someone else, or we bargain and plead because we just don’t have the time or the money or the inclination to do what we’re being called to do.  The “lure” (do you see what I did there?..aargh…aargh) of this world—money, employment, security, control, comfort—almost always gets in the way.

But think about it.  The disciples were actually probably relatively prosperous fishermen.  They had a boat; they had gear; they had a plan.  Within their culture, it implies that they were not uneducated or untrained or impoverished.  They were not out of work.  They had a pretty lucrative thing going.   The point is that they actually had something that they had to give up to follow Jesus.  They had to give up the self that they had fashioned to become who they were meant to be.  See, God never promised that this road would be easy; the promise was that it was the one that was right, that was the way to who we are.

So this call story is not so drastically removed from our own.  We are called each and every moment to change pathways, to become who we really are.  But it means that we have to give up this self that we’ve created, this self that we’ve tried so hard to fit into this world.  We have to follow.  And that’s what discipleship is all about.  It is not what we do; it is who we are.

Well, somewhere along the way this whole “fishers of people” thing caught on.  We put it on T-shirts; we put it on posters; so does that mean we’re supposed to hook people when they’re not paying attention?  And what about those of us who don’t really like fishing?  The thing is, God calls us where we are.  If fishing is what you do, then you keep doing it.  You just make it about something bigger.  After all, it’s not about the fishing. But we are not being called to do just anything (regardless of how many volunteers a project at your church claims it needs). We are called to use those unique gifts that God fashioned in each of us, to respond in the way that God envisions so that we can become who we are meant to be.  Whatever gifts you have, whatever occupation is yours, whatever life you live, God is calling you to use.  Because it’s about something more.  Maybe it’s about showing others the way that you’ve been shown; Maybe it’s about grace; Maybe it’s about just spending time with God.  We are not called to be something that we’re not, but to become fully who we are.

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite writers.  She tells in one of her books about a time in her life when she was struggling mightily with sense of call. She simply could not figure out what it was that God wanted her to do and be. Did God want her to be a writer? Did God want her to be a priest? Did God want her to be a social worker? Did God want her to teach? She simply didn’t know. And in her frustration and exasperation, one midnight, she says, she fell down on her knees in prayer and said: “Okay, God. You need to level with me. What do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? What are you calling me to do?” She said she felt a very powerful response, God saying, “Do what pleases you. Belong to me, but do what pleases you.” She said it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch that place of her greatest joy, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most.

Frederick Buechner says, “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet.”  Think about what that means.  God calls us.  Sometimes it’s pretty scary.  Sometimes we want to run away.  Sometimes it means that we have to leave the life we’ve built behind.  But following wherever God leads means that we will truly find joy.  We will finally know what it’s all about.  And it’s about more than the fishing.

The most secret, sacred wish that lies deep down at the bottom of your heart, the wonderful thing that you hardly dare to look at, or to think about…that is just the very thing that God is wishing you to do or to be for [God].  And the birth of that marvelous wish in your soul–the dawning of that secret dream–was the voice of God telling you to arise and come up higher because [God] has need of you. (Emmett Fox)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Found

“Calling Disciples”, He Qi (from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN)

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  John 1: 43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Most of us love the stories of Jesus calling the disciples.  I have this image of Jesus walking around, just an ordinary guy calling ordinary people to become a part of this new way of being, this new way of living, this new Way of understanding God and how God relates to us.  But don’t limit it to “The Twelve”, as if they are some sort of elite management team of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus was always calling people.  Some stayed on the edges of the movement, not really wanting to get too involved.  Some wandered off, only to return when it was convenient or when they felt like they wanted to be a part of it.  (They probably showed up for Christmas Eve and Easter!…kidding!)  And there were some that chose not to participate at all, opting instead to continue down their very carefully-planned life’s path.  But some, a few, went all in, becoming disciples and walking with Jesus through it all.

In the Gospel by the writer we know as John, this account follows the beginning of Jesus’ calling of the disciples.  He left Jordan and John the Baptist points Andrew and Simon Peter toward Jesus.  They follow him and then we’re told that Jesus found Philip, who was from their hometown.  Now in this week’s passage, we’re told that Philip then tries to recruit Nathanael.  But Nathanael was seemingly unimpressed, almost skeptical about what Philip was telling him.  Nathanael was the first person that we know that dared to ask questions about Jesus and this new Way. I mean, “who was this guy?”, he thought.  “Why should I follow him?”  But notice that Philip doesn’t give up.  He doesn’t argue with Nathanael.  He doesn’t berate him for not getting on board immediately.  With great faith, Philip’s response to the question was not a hard-baked answer but rather an invitation: “Come and see.”

We are all Nathanaels.  We have questions.  Sometimes we have doubts.  Sometimes this does not make sense at all. And despite what some current-day religious folks will tell you, that’s ok.  God never laid out some definitive answer or even one pathway to walk.  God never desired that we be right; God desired that we have faith.  Those two things are not interchangeable.  Faith is not a math equation where we’re trying to pursue the right answer to understand everything.  Faith is a journey full of questions and doubts and twists and turns in our pathway that lead us not to the answer but to the next step.  That’s where God is trying to lead us—the next step toward relationship, toward oneness, with God.

And look at what Nathanael did.  He wasn’t completely convinced but he turned and he looked.  And he saw.  He saw who Jesus was.  After all this time of searching, all this time of wandering around lost, he found what he had been looking for.  And, more than that, Jesus found him. The passage ends by reaching back into what Nathanael knew, back into the Scriptures that he had known even as a child.  It ends with an allusion to Jacob’s dream at the place we call Bethel.  Jacob dreamed of angels traveling up and down a ladder (actually, more of a ramp or stairway or maybe even a Mesopotamian ziggurat).  It is an interesting image, implying that our faith pathway is not a “one-way” road but rather a way that the spiritual and physical realms are connected as we travel back and forth with our searching and our questions.  And Jacob’s response to it, “Surely the Lord was in this place—and I did not know it!”, is our response over and over and over again.

Our world is strange right now, I know.  We thought the new year would bring us relief from Covid-19 and just days into it, we are met with an insurrection on The Capitol.  Are you kidding me?  It’s easy to question, to even feel lost.  It’s easy to find yourself overtaken by fear and anger.  I know I have.  But when I read this Scripture, what struck me was the notion of being “found”.  As I mentioned before, I don’t think of our pathway to faith as one limited way.  God is everywhere, inviting us to “come and see”, come and see everything, come and see all ways and all people and all incarnations of God.  Maybe lostness doesn’t happen by getting “off the path”.  Maybe lostness happens when we become so convinced that we have the answers, when we become so convinced that we are right, that we shut down or, even worse, we lash out.  I pray for all of us.  I pray for those that were victims of that attack on The Capitol.  And I pray for those that for whatever reason felt so compelled by their “rightness” (and some, dare I say, by their “whiteness”) that they would be willing to throw everything away to force what they think on others.

God is so incredibly patient with us.  God lets us wander around, sometimes aimlessly, searching and trying and trying again.  God lets us test our faith, and defy our faith, and find our faith yet again.  And in those incredible moments when we, too, feel that “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”, God celebrates that we have found it again.  And God reminds us that we were always found.  We just have to “come and see”.     

Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God…They prayed and wrestled and sought…in season and out, and when they had found [God], the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking.” (A. W. Tozer)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli