The Wilderness of Certainty

Tightrope walkerScripture Text:  Ephesians 2: 8-10

 

8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

 

See, we’ve really figured this out. We think if we get good grades, we’ll pass the course. If we do a good job, we’ll get a promotion. If we pay our dues, we’ll be rewarded. If we’re good, we’ll end up in the good seats in God’s Kingdom. We have it figured out. But this…what do you mean it’s not our doing? We’ve been working so hard. After all, there are good people and bad people. There are believers and non-believers (and maybe a few unbelievers). But we have tried so hard. Oh, we’ve messed up a time or two. We’ve ignored poverty. We’ve allowed racism and prejudice to exist even today. We’ve gotten behind those who can get us further, can give us what we desire. We’ve been mean, no, really, really mean to some that did not deserve it. But, for the most part, we follow the “Big Ten” and we try our best to be on our best God-behavior and, after all, we’re not bad “them”. And so we wait and hope that it will all be enough for God to swoop in and save us.

 

Is that what that says? Is that what any of it means? And what do we do with “it’s not our doing”? Of course it’s our doing. If we’re good, God will save us; if we’re bad, well we just won’t think about that. And now we find out that it’s a gift. Whew! Gifts from God tend to be very unpredictable. Gifts from God are not always what we imagined, not always what we would have put on our wish list. Gifts from God are sometimes downright dangerous business. The truth is, we see now that what we do, how good we act, how much better we are than anyone else is not what God had in mind. We are saved, yes, but through faith. Grace saves us through faith.

 

Don’t you hate it when that happens? It kind of puts everyone on the same level. After all, grace is undeserved, unmerited, unmeasured, and undefined. Grace is God’s movement in our life. God has been known to just hand out grace at will! So, when do we get saved? When do we get the t-shirt? When does God finally, once and for all, check us off the big God list so that we know that we’re “in”? You know, wandering in this wilderness would be a whole lot better if we knew how it was all going to turn out.

 

The problem is that Grace is not a one-time shot. Grace happens over and over and over again in our lives. Doors are continually opening for us and some are closing this very moment so that we will turn toward the open one. Grace is not a place or a time or a particular window in our lives. Grace is God’s way of journeying with us, handing us God’s hand over and over as God pushes us or pulls us or propels us or welcomes us into being. Grace is a process. Salvation is a process. We are never saved; we are always being saved. Salvation is never past tense, nor is grace.

 

Perhaps this wilderness comes about because we are so certain of things. Certainty is a dangerous thing. Certainty closes us off. We check off our boxes and we go on to the next thing. Grace does not give us certainty; grace gives us assurance enough to keep walking. Perhaps certainty, itself, is a wilderness. Perhaps it is a wilderness that we didn’t even recognize, a way that shuts us off to God, that makes us turn to ourselves, that closes our minds and our hearts to the Grace that God continually sows into our lives. Perhaps this Lenten season is a wilderness that moves us out of the wilderness of certainty, that walks us through a wilderness that is actually going somewhere, that moves us to a place where we can touch and feel and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we do not know and so must continue journeying on through the doors that Grace opens.

 

Certainty is missing the point entirely. (Ann Lamott in “Plan B:  Further Thoughts on Faith”)

 

FOR TODAY:  Let go of certainty.  Follow Grace.  Let the wilderness lead you where God is leading you.

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Falling Down Laughing

Falling down laughingScripture Text:  Genesis 17: 4-8

4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

You know the story.  Abram and Sarai have longed for a child, an offspring, a descendent.  But it had never happened.  And now, with more years behind them than ahead, they have resolved that the longing will never come to be.  The first ones to hear this story were more than likely in the midst of exile, living in the wilderness of darkness and looking at the bare remains of a city and temple that once was.  The story comes as a reminder of who they are as the people of God.  It is a reminder that God does not always act within the limits that we have established and the plans that we have formulated in our small minds; rather, God continually jaunts out into the wilderness, into what cannot be, and creates.  It’s ludicrous; it’s incredulous; it’s enough to make you fall down laughing.  But God’s promise remains true.

First, God appears to Abram and announces God’s presence.  Abram falls on his face, downright shocked at who is actually speaking to him.  And with the covenant, Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.  The covenant signifies a shift in who they are.  God promises that Abram will have descendents.  And they laughed.  Well, of course they laughed.  It was ridiculous.  Abram and Sarai were old–really, really, really old.  All logic told them that their childbearing years were not just running out but were way behind them.  It just didn’t make sense.  But surprisingly, God often doesn’t make sense in this world that we have figured out.  God continually tends to sort of blow the boundaries and the limits that we have drawn out of the water.

Our lectionary (even the full passage that I didn’t put up at the front of this) doesn’t really include the part where Abram fell down laughing.  Perhaps those who put the lectionary together thought that a bit too irreverent of the mighty God.  After all, would you dare laugh at God?  Well, good grief, don’t you think God is laughing at us sometimes?  Perhaps laughter is what brings perspective.

Abraham laughed.  Sarah laughed.  And I’m betting God laughed.  (You can just imagine the inside joke between the three:  “This is going to be good.  No one will ever believe this could happen.  We’ll just shake them up a bit.”)  Maybe laughter is our grace-filled way of getting out of our self and realizing that, as ludicrous and unbelievable as it may be, God’s promise holds.  Maybe it’s our way of admitting once and for all that we don’t have it all figured out, that, in all honesty, we don’t even have ourselves figured out, that there’s a whole new identity just waiting for us to claim.  In this Season of Lent, we are called to get out of our self, to open ourselves to possibilities and ways of being that we cannot even fathom. Go ahead and laugh.  It is only the beginning.  The promise holds.

You know, I don’t think God really expects us to stay buttoned-up and well-behaved.  God doesn’t want anything that we are not.  God doesn’t want us on our best behavior; God wants us real; God wants us to just flat fall down laughing sometimes at the ludicrousness of it all.  If sometimes tells you not to cry, if someone tells you not to laugh, they are telling you not to be you.  God gave you those expressions of emotion as a wonderful, wonderful gift to get you through it all.  Don’t you think God enjoys a good joke once in a awhile?  After all, this is the God that promised offspring to someone not just past their prime, but downright looking at the tail end of life!  And THEN came through with the promise.  Pretty funny…pretty sneaky…pretty amazing.

I hope that at my funeral, there will be both tears and laughter because then I will know that I have lived the fullness of life.  And then I hope that everyone will leave the church and go dancing because then I will know that they have joy.  The wilderness is known for tears but sometimes you just have to laugh at the ludicrousness of it all.  I don’t know if we laugh our way through the wilderness or out of it, but Abram embraced it and became someone else.  Abraham and Sarah never got to the Promised Land.  It was enough to live with God’s Promise of what it held; it was enough for it to make one fall down laughing in praise to the God who chooses not to live within our rules, who chooses instead to love our laughter and feel our tears and offer grace through it all.

Humor is the beginning of faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

FOR TODAY:  Laugh…laugh…laugh…laugh enough that you fall down in prayer.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

 

Return to Grace

Rainbow

Scripture Text:  Genesis 9:12-17

12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

This is actually the tale-end of the story of Noah and the famous ark filled to the brim with the remnants of Creation.  And here…after all this time of pounding rains, all this time cooped up with animals of all kinds, all this time rocking and swaying with the boat…here, God speaks.  The familiar bow of color is set in the clouds as a sign of the promise that God has made.  We usually take it as a sign that God will take care of us, that God will right the wrongs of the world and order them yet again, that God will somehow assuage our pain and grief and put things back the way they were.  Really?  THAT’S not what that says.

Now we can either look at this story as a sort of children’s story, complete with rainbows and pairs of elephants and zebras and orangutans or we can look at this story as one depicting a deity who was so angered by the rebellion of the Creation that God wiped it off the face of the earth. Truthfully, neither one works. Indeed, this is a story about rebellion and human sinfulness. (And to be honest, what story is NOT?) But the whole point is that no matter how far the human creation wandered from the Creator, there was a calling back, a return, an offering of love and forgiveness and a chance to begin again. Now, that’s hard for us to fathom too, possibly because we are not good at offering each other “do-overs”. We are not good at understanding a God who would dispense with all means of justified destruction and just offer Presence and Grace and a future filled with hope. It is hard for us to imagine that no matter what we do, no matter what we screw up or blow up or make up, God is offering a chance to return, a chance to be recreated into something that only God can imagine.

You see, the Celtic tradition would look upon the rainbow not as a promise that God would “fix” the world or “fix” us, but as a threshold, a point between what is and what will be.  So, the promise is not that God will fix everything, but that, always, there is a chance to begin again.  We always and forever, no matter what we’ve done or thought or how many times we’ve flaked out in life, have the chance to return to the beginning. God does not wipe what has happened.  God does not forget what we have done.  Rather God, knowing and remembering full well what the creatures have done in Creation, STILL God offers a threshold through which we can return to Grace–if we will only step through.

The grace of God means something like:  Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us…There’s only one catch.  Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.  Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.  (Frederick Buechner)

FOR TODAY:  What does it mean to return to grace?  What does it mean not to forget what has happened, not to forget what you have done, but to allow yourself to step through the threshold that God has opened wide, to allow yourself to begin again?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli