Faith in the Midst of Everything Else

city-streetsPaul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1: 1-7)

So many of us spend our time trying to “find” God, perhaps trying to get to the place where God is.  We often forget that God is not sitting in some faraway place until we clean up our act or pray more or get more religious or figure it all out. (OK, THAT’S probably never going to happen.)  God comes into the normalcy of our lives.  God shows up on city streets and country lanes.  God appears in places that we wouldn’t dare go ourselves.  God does not limit the Divine to the places that are cleaned up and presentable.  God comes not just to the places where we think we should be but the places where we spend our days and spend our hours, the times when we laugh and grieve and dance and walk and get all confused and discombobulated and feel like we’re all alone.  The coming of God into our midst in this very chaotic and holy season reminds us of that.  God did not sit in some far-off palace eating hors d’oeuvres until everyone caught up with the Divine.  God came into the lowliest of cities and was born in the dirtiest of cribs and was held by the poorest of the poor who had been refused entrance to what most of us would count as normal.

The point is that God comes not to the ones who deserve God’s Presence, not to the ones that are really all that prepared, not to the ones that have done what they need to do, but to us.  God comes to us.  God comes into our lives just as they are and begins to walk, first taking our hand and guiding our steps until we can run on our own and help others along the way.  God comes into the places where God is unrecognized and needed the most.

Once I baptized a baby who was eating a Ritz cracker.  The mother was, of course, trying to calm the squirming child down enough to get some holy water on his head and hear the words that reminded us who he was and who we were.  It worked.  There, with Ritz cracker in hand, Hudson was reminded (or his parents were reminded) that he was a son of God with whom God is well pleased.  And I’m thinking that if all that took was a Ritz cracker, then we ought to spend our whole journey with an open box in tow.  We do not have to clean up our act before God comes.  God is willing to come into the very messiness of our lives.  If it takes a Ritz cracker to calm us down enough to receive it, then so be it.  THIS Advent, THIS Christmas, in the moment that you are now, look up and know that God comes, with our without hors d’oeuvres.

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time.  God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain.  God came with Love.  Rejoice!  Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (From “First Coming”, by Madeleine L’Engle)

FOR TODAY:  Pay attention to God’s coming.  It’s happening now.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Unfiltered

 

unfiltered-light10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7: 10-16)

As we near the end of Advent and the promised coming of God, the prophetic voices seem to get louder and louder.  The picture of the promise has begun to take shape, moving from a far-off clouded beginning to verses that are more specific of what is about to happen.  We don’t know if Ahaz’ refusal to ask for a sign is because it had begun to be clear or if it was his way of showing his faith.  Either way, he didn’t feel the need to ask for proof of God’s existence or what God was about to do.  But we really don’t know who the child is.  Some think that this might have been referring to Ahaz’s wife, which means the child may have been the future king Hezekiah.  Centuries later when the Christian lens was added, another interpretation of the passage was taken as referring to the coming of Christ, Emmanuel, “God with us”.

There is ambiguity to the story.  Oh, who are we kidding?  There is ambiguity to the whole faith story.  Maybe that’s the point.  If the story were clear and definitive, why would we need faith?  If we knew exactly where we were going, why would we need to walk this road?  Faith is not knowing what the promise is; faith is not being sure of where we are going; faith is journeying toward a promise that is sometimes clear and sometimes cloudy, but always there.

Yesterday, every window in the house in which I live was replaced.  The old windows were dirty and worn.  They had been clouded over with years and years of dirt and grime, years of weather and winds, years of pounding rains.  (And they were so thin and brittle, that Maynard, the black lab had hit one and broken it going after a person or a cat or perhaps a unicorn, but that’s another story!) But when I look through the new windows, the colors are more pronounced and I can see more of what is outside.  The light streams in, unfiltered by dust and grime.  That is sort of what Advent does for us.  This season is a clearing season, clearing away the cobwebs and the dirt and grime, making the colors of our faith more pronounced so that the promise begins to come into focus, if only a little bit.  It is still filled with ambiguity and the unknown.  After all, we’re not meant to ever have ALL the answers.  We’re meant to walk in faith. But the signs are there.  Unfiltered, this season prepares us to open our eyes to the light as it begins to stream in. And when the light is that bright, it walks us through the ambiguity that it illumines.

Spirituality is the ability to live with ambiguity. (Ray Anderson)

FOR TODAY:  What signs do you see when you stop and look?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Or Should We Wait for Another?

Reflexion of a lunar path in water.2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  (Matthew 11: 2-11)

So, are you the one?  Because, see, we’re putting a lot into this.  We need to be sure.  We do not want to be surprised again.  So, just tell us, “are you the one or do we need to keep looking?”  We’re like that.  We want to be certain.  We don’t want to waste our time or our emotions.  We want to get the show on the road but we want to make sure that the road we’re on is the way home.

John was, of course, the forerunner, the one who was to point to the One who was pointing to God.  So, John had gotten on board quick, preaching his message of immediate repentance with all the evangelistic fervor of one of those early morning television preachers.  But then when Jesus finally comes on the scene, he starts healing and freeing and forgiving and welcoming and doing all sorts of things that were not going to move this along any faster.  Jesus was not what John had envisioned and certainly not what we wanted to see.  So, he just bluntly asks, “Are you really the one?”  In other words, are you sure you have the personality for this job?  Maybe we need to put some feelers out.  Maybe, well, you know, maybe we need someone that is a little more direct, someone who looks like what people want to see.

So, are we any different?  We all probably have a certain image of what Jesus should be.  We have an image of the way we should act, the way we should dress, the way we should worship to give God the glory in the way that we have figured out God wants to be glorified.  And we have shut out the ways and those that do not fit that mold.  Advent is a season that teaches us a different way of seeing.  Advent shakes loose the cobwebs that have begun to grow around our hardened and finished ideas of who God is and who God wants us to be.  Advent opens us to the possibility that God will come anew into places that we thought we had already figured out.  Advent prepares us not to know the old, old story again but rather read its rewritten version that God is already writing on our hearts.  Advent tears down the fences and the walls and the borders that we have built and calls us to a faraway place where we will find God.

So, should we wait for another?  Well, I supposed you could.  Or you could just open your eyes and your hearts to the One that has come and that will come again given the chance.

Whoever you are, in whatever faith you were born, whatever creed you profess; if you come to this house to find God you are welcome here.   (John Wesley)

FOR TODAY:  About what are you so certain that you have quit searching?

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

When the Manna Ceases to Be

MannaScripture Passage (Joshua 5: 9-12)

9The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. 10While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

 

It was a glorious morning when the manna first showed up, fields upon fields of what seemed to be never-ending sustenance in the midst of deep hunger and despair. They ate their fill and it went away only to show up yet again the next day. It was what they needed at the time. It was God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s fill raining down upon them. They had come out of Egypt downtrodden and emotionally beaten. They were not who they had been or who they were supposed to be. They couldn’t provide for themselves and the anger and the frustration and the disgrace became a part of their lives. They seemed to be in some sort of never-ending spiral of despair upon despair. And then, one day, they awoke to manna, gleaming pools of white that beckoned them to eat their fill, to feel better. It was comfort food at is finest.

 

And then one day, they ate unleavened bread and parched grain. It was food that they had grown and harvested, food that they had been able to produce themselves. It was wonderful, wonderful to eat of the harvest that they had a hand in bringing to be. It felt good to feel like they were getting back on their feet again. And then they realized that the manna has ceased to be. It no longer came unbidden in the morning. It no longer just appeared out of the clouds. It no longer came and what was interesting was that they really hadn’t realized it.

 

The manna was never meant to be permanent. It was never intended to be the thing that would sustain them forever. You can call it a stop-gap of sorts. But it’s probably better depicted as God’s way of helping us stand. We all have times of despair, times when the manna is the only thing we have to sustain us. But if we spent the rest of our lives just eating manna every morning, what would life really hold? We couldn’t leave the place and travel to new worlds. We have to be there in the morning when the fields burst into white. We couldn’t just relax and maybe even sleep in. After all, the manna was only there for a couple of hours. But, more importantly, we couldn’t grow. We couldn’t become those who God intended us to be—the planters, the harvesters, the helpers, those that hope for something more, that understand that God promises something more. So God gently nudges us away from this sort of dependence. (God did that before when we first began…I mean, does anyone even remember where that little Garden is anymore?) Maybe God’s intention is not that we be dependent upon God but that we choose to depend upon God. Those are different.

 

So in this Lenten season, we remember the manna. We remember the way that God sustained us, holding us, helping us stand. We remember and then begin to walk. And what we learn is that God is not trying to limit our world or constrict our view. God is there when we need help standing. And then when we begin to walk, when we finally begin to hope, when we begin to become more of who God intends us to be, God walks with us as we plant and harvest and become a part of growing God’s Kingdom. And if we fall again, God will pick us up and show us fields of manna—if only for a time. We can depend on that.

 

Let yourself get shaken up. What are you willing to give up to ensure your own unfolding, and the unfolding of what is holy in your life? Where you stumble, here is your treasure. (Joseph Campbell)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

Mine to Walk

path-795x380Scripture Passage (1 Corinthians 10: 12-13)

12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

 

Well, this is enough to rattle anyone’s self-confidence! We like to think that if we “get there”, you know, confess our sins, profess our belief, get baptized, do what we’re supposed to do, check all the boxes of good church people, that everything will turn out alright. The problem is that it’s not a one-time thing. (Yes, I’m Methodist. Sadly, we are not “once saved, always saved”.) I mean, really, what good would that do? We just spend a little bit of time on our best behavior and then we’re “in”. I don’t think God works like that. It’s not about what we’ve done; It’s about who we are. It’s about who we’re becoming. It’s about relationship. Our faith journey is long and sometimes hard and sometimes glorious. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we know we get it right. Sometimes we find ourselves diving into deep and wonderful pools of clear reviving water and other times we seem to wallow in the shallow mud pits of life. Sometimes we can feel so connected to God that there is no doubt in our minds or our hearts that the Divine is right there, almost touchable, almost approachable. But we cannot rest on the laurels of our past. That’s not the way relationships work.

 

Living a life of faith really does not allow us to become complacent. It doesn’t allow us to sit back and bask in our glorious history that we bring to the table. God’s not really concerned with the fact that my grandparents were good, church-going people (at least not as far as my faith journey is concerned). It was good for them and they taught me well. But, now, it’s mine. God wants to have a relationship with ME. That’s the reason that “inherited” faith can only go so far (which means that, thanks be to God, that whole “sins of the fathers [and the mothers]” thing also only goes so far. My faith journey is mine. It is my relationship with God. It is my walk toward and with the Divine. It is mine to walk, mine to navigate, mine to mess up and get all turned around and not know where to go. It is mine to choose to stop and stay mired in what I think is the “right” way or what hymns I like to sing or what style of worship in which I like to participate. It is mine to halt at any point and sit down and bask in what I’ve done or become laden down by what I’ve neglected to do. And with God’s grace, it is mine to begin again. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We help each other along the way. Hopefully, we can give each other what we do not have. And that, too, is God’s grace.

 

This journey of Lent is sort of a microcosm of our whole faith journey. We begin where we are (wherever we are) and we look at our self and we look at our lives and we see what we really are—beloved children of God. And then we look at the ways that we’re NOT what we really are, the ways that we have allowed ourselves to overstep or overreach or overindulge or somehow become a little too full of what we imagine we can be. We look at the ways that we do not walk with God. And then God offers a hand (or someone else’s hand) and we begin to walk. And the road twists and turns and the storms come and the sun’s heat bears down on us and the winds whip around and the sand gets in our eyes. And then we see the light of the path ahead once again and we follow it, at least until we get off track again. And in those times when we feel the path beneath us, those times when we are aware of God’s presence, those times when God’s grace seems to wrap around us and hold us, we realize that the hand we hold never lost its grip on our lives. And we relax a little. We become comfortable. We might become a little complacent again. We become a little too certain that we’ve got it figured out. And then the winds begin again and the curtain tears and the darkness descends upon us. But this time, we know to wait, to wait in holy silence until the stone of our lives is rolled away so that we can begin again. That is faith. That is the journey. We don’t travel it alone but no one can do it for us.

 

Deep within us all there is an amazing sanctuary of the soul, a holy place…to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us…calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions…utterly and completely, to the Light within, is the beginning of true life. (Thomas R. Kelly)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

To Hold Dear and Love

14-11-02-#6-Sermon-Thin PlaceScripture Passage (Genesis 15: 1-6)

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 

 

We are told over and over to not be afraid. But we still want a guarantee. We WANT to believe that God will work it all out; we WANT to believe that God will sustain us; we WANT to believe, but we’d like to know when things will get worked out to at least our satisfaction, if not our comfort and ease. Now this passage is probably better translated as “trust” than “believe”. Is it the same? Well, probably close. But we tend to think of believing in something as knowing that it’s right. That’s not really right, but it’s what most of us have fallen into. In the 16th century, the Saxon meaning depicted it as “to hold dear or love”. That’s different. That’s WAY different. Do you follow because you think it’s right or because you love it and hold it dear? So is belief more about facts or about the meaning it brings to your life?

 

When we are told not to be afraid, it seems to be more of a call to trust, rather than merely believe. You can believe something, maybe know it’s right in your deepest being, and yet not fully give yourself to it. But Abram was told to trust, to give himself to it. “Come, Abraham. Trust it. Follow it. Give yourself to it. Hold it dear and love it. Become it.” And the covenant, the relationship, came to be.

 

This journey that we’re on is not, of course, a straight and unhindered pathway. There are hills to climb and valleys to maneuver. There is a wilderness to traverse. There are things that come along and get in our way and change our whole schedule when we least expect it. (I had some of those the last few days, which is why I’m WAY behind on “daily meditations”. So, I owe you four extras somewhere along the way!) But we’re not just called to mindlessly and aimlessly follow what we believe to be true.  We are instead called to trust it in our deepest being, to turn ourselves over to it, if you will. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be “blips” along the way. After all, Abraham (formerly known as Abram) would become the father of three major world religions, but he was perfect. He probably wasn’t even trustworthy. We all know he tried to manipulate the outcome of it all a bit. But this faith journey is not about making us perfect humans; it’s not about our blind acceptance of what we do not understand; it’s about relationship. Faith is about realizing and trusting that we are part of a deep and abiding relationship between God and humanity, actually between God and all of Creation as the holy and the sacred pours into our being bit by bit. No, it makes no sense in terms of this world. That’s what makes it faith. That’s what Lent teaches us. So, do not be afraid. Follow what you love and hold dear and I’ll walk it with you.

 

Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it. (Ann Bedford Ulanov)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

In Our Search for Belief

Cross-Abstract
“Faith, Day and Night”, J. Vincent Scarpace, 2012

Scripture Passage (Romans 10: 8b-13)

 

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

 

You know, this whole faith journey thing would be a whole lot easier if the rules were better laid out! So, are you supposed to confess your beliefs first or believe what you’re saying first? (because did you notice they get switched in this passage?) I mean, just make it easy! How DO we get this right? Just tell me what I’m supposed to do and I’ll do it! Just tell me what to say. I’m a pretty fast learner. I could probably remember enough to get through the initial exam anyway.

 

That’s what most of us want. That’s what those that Paul was first addressing wanted. Good grief, just tell us what we’re supposed to do to get this right! They wanted him to tell them what acts, what righteousness needed to happen so they could check off that they were following the law. We’re no different. We’re used to racking up points or grades or salary levels (or for churches, it would be members or attendees or giving patterns or apportionments—aaaagggghhhh!—there, I’m better!), all so that we can check off that we’ve achieved something. But when you read this, Paul isn’t even laying out what it is we’re supposed to believe. There’s no talk of original sin or not, no mention of which salvation theory Paul thought was the right one, and no list of rules or beliefs to which we needed to adhere to get “in”. Paul’s answer instead was to just believe. Just ask. Just open your mouth and pour out your heart and say it. That’s all. Because, see, it’s there. It’s all right there. Just call on the Lord and start walking.

 

But there’s another side to this. If we’re not told exactly what it is that we’re supposed to believe, then why would we think that our beliefs are the way everyone should believe? The passage says that “everyone—that means all of us—who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In other words, desiring God is enough. Desiring God is what leads us toward God. Wanting to pray is praying. Yearning to be with God is being with God. Confessing our belief is believing. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have what seem to be crises of faith. (I have one about every week lately!) It doesn’t mean that we will ever get to the point where we don’t have questions. (If you meet someone that tells you they don’t question God or question what they believe, personally, I’d run! I mean, are you really willing to stake your whole existence on what YOU’VE figured out God is going to do?)

 

Desiring God, wanting to be with God, wanting to follow is enough. Beginning is enough. I mean, I’ll be honest, if God had some prescribed list of rules and definitive beliefs in mind, why in the world would God have chosen Paul to be the head writer of the greatest treatise on salvation of all time, with his circular thoughts and grammatically incorrect run-on sentences? Maybe God’s whole idea is that we wander and we explore and we question and we journey not until we “get it” but until we realize that the journey IS the way we live with God, that this wilderness in which we find ourselves IS the Way to God and, at the same time, the way to ourselves. That is the reason that in this season, we find ourselves in the wilderness. It is not a punishment. It is a reminder that the God who created us has never left us. It is for us to realize that in the deepest part of our being, we desire to be with God almost as much as God desires to be with us. That is the reason that God came, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, to walk with us, to perhaps wake up our God-given desires to be with God. So, begin. Wanting to be with God IS being with God. And THAT is something in which you can believe.

 

There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every [person] which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ. (Blaise Pascal)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli