Take Joy, Take Light

Scripture Text: Isaiah 12: 2-6 (Advent 3C)

2Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

We love this Psalm.  We love to say it.  We love to sing it.  It brings us joy.  It is our affirmation that we trust that God will save us, that we rely on that.  And we wait and watch for those lovely flowing waters of salvation.  The writer’s vision is one of liberation—to the exiles, to the world, to all of Creation, to us.  The destiny is clear.  God is walking us all toward salvation and that is indeed something about which everyone should be joyful. 

But what do we do in the meantime?  What do we do while we are waiting for the promised liberation or the prophesied salvation?  What do we do while we are waiting for our joy to kick in?  So, did we forget?  Did we forget what we believe—that God, the very Godself, the Creator, broke through all time and space and entered this world as a baby to become Emmanuel, God-With-Us?  So go back and re-read this Psalm with that in mind.

Notice that it says “God IS my salvation”—not God will be or God might be or God will come when we do something right.  God IS my salvation.  That’s pretty major.  The God who is in our midst is here to save us—not to see if we’re being good or doing right—just IS.  So, why aren’t we drawing water from those wells?  Those wells are everywhere, flowing with clean sparkling water.  We just have to get a bucket and draw out the water.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe we don’t always have our bucket handy.  Maybe we’re so preoccupied with what we will be and the way things will turn out for us that we have neglected what God has given us to draw out water, to draw out joy, to draw out Light.

God created us in Joy.  God created us in Light.  God created us in water—lifegiving waters.  It’s all for the taking.  We are called to always go toward who we are meant to be, who God created us to be.  But the journey is here, filled with joy and light.  So take your bucket and draw out the waters.  Take joy.  Take Light.  It is yours.  God IS our salvation.  Take that too, for “great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel”—in your midst…

I salute you. I am your friend and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not got. But there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instance. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy! Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty . . . that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it, that is all! . . . And so I greet you, with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away. (From a letter by Fra Giovanni, 1513, as quoted in the introduction of “Take Joy”, by Tasha Tudor) 

Grace and Peace,

 Shelli

Belove

Lectionary Passage:  John 3: 14-21 (Lent 4B)

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

This is it: THE verse.  So what we do with THE verse?  It’s on street corners and billboards and T-Shirts and tattoos and faces and signs at sporting events.  I think it is often read as some sort of great reward for doing the right things.  You know, if you do everything you’re supposed to do, you’ll be rewarded when it’s all said and done.  And if you don’t, well you’re just out of luck.  So, look at me…do what I do, go to church where I go, be what I am, look like I look.  I’m saved; are you?  (Define that!  Do we really understand what that means?)

But I think we’ve read it wrong.  For God so loved the world—not the ones in the right church or the right country or the right side of the line—but the WORLD.  God loved the world, everything about the world, everyone in the world, so much, so very, very, VERY much, that God came and walked among us, sending One who was the Godself in every way, to lead us home, to actually BRING us home, to lead us to God.  Are you saved?  Yes…every day, every hour, over and over and over and over again.  I’m being saved with every step and move and breath I take.  I think that’s what God does.  God loves us SO much that that is what God does.  God is saving us.  God came into the world to save the world.  So why would we interpret this to mean that God somehow has quit loving some of us or that we have to somehow bargain with God to begin loving us or that “being saved” is a badge of honor?  See, God loves us so much that God is saving us from ourselves. 

The reference to the snake refers to the Old Testament lectionary reading for this week (Numbers 21:4-9 if you need to be reminded of it)  It is the account of the Lord sending poisonous serpents into the wilderness that can be countered by making a serpent and putting it on a pole so that everyone who looks at it will live even though they were bit by a poisonous snake.  (OK….whatever!)  So, essentially, it’s like this:  You think your main problem is snakes?  Alright, here it is.  Look at it hanging there on the tree.  Quash your fear, let your preconceptions go.  There…no more snakes.  You don’t have to fear snakes. 

So, this time?  You have let the world order run your life.  You have become someone that you are not.  You have allowed yourself to be driven by fear and preconceptions and greed.  You have opted for security over freedom, held on to what is not yours, and settled for vengeance rather than compassion and love.   I created you for more than this.  I love you too much for this to go on.  Look up.  Look there, hanging on the tree, there on the cross.  Stare at the Cross.  Enter the Cross.  See how much I love you.  In this moment, I take all your sin, all your misgivings, all your inhumanity and let it die with me.  All is well.  All is well with your soul.  There…no more death.  You don’t have to fear death.

In this season of Lent, we inch closer and closer to the cross.  We shy away.  It’s hard to look at.  But perhaps it’s not the gory details, but the realization that we are the culprits.  Lent provides a mirror into which we look and find ourselves standing in the wilderness of ourselves, sometimes fearful of what we might find.  But the Cross is our way out (not our way “in” to God, but our way “out” of ourselves).  Because God loves us so much that God cannot fathom leaving us behind.  The Cross is the place where we finally know that. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Thomas Long, the well-known professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology once said it like this:  In Christian language, to be truly human is to shape our lives into an offering to God. But we are lost children who have wandered away from home, forgotten what a truly human life might be. When Jesus, our older brother, presented himself in the sanctuary of God, his humanity fully intact, he did not cower as though he were in a place of “blazing fire and darkness and gloom.” Instead, he called out, “I’m home, and I have the children with me.”

In this wilderness season, it is easy to feel lost.  It is easy to feel alone.  It is easy to wonder where to turn next.  But this passage is a reminder that we are not alone.  God is always there and has given us a promise.  You…you are my beloved child.  Believe.  Belove.  Know that I am always with you, always carrying you home.

Salvation is not only a goal for the afterlife; it is a reality of everyday that we can taste here and now. (Henri J.M. Nouwen)

Grace and Peace,

 Shelli

By Grace

Lectionary Passage:  Ephesians 2:1-10 (Lent 4B)

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

There’s actually two parts to this passage.  There’s a “before” and there’s an “after”.  BEFORE you were dead…and AFTER you weren’t.  BEFORE you were of this world…and AFTER you weren’t.  BEFORE you had it wrong…and AFTER you don’t.  That’s probably enough.  We can just stop there. 

No, not going to stop…The writer of this letter (who is more than likely not the Apostle Paul but rather a later follower or disciple of Paul’s) seems to be really focused on continuing this separation between this world and God, between the “sinful” world and God’s promise of grace and life.  Paul had introduced the notion of being justified by grace through faith, the notion that God was a redemptive God, that it was a process by which we traversed the experience of this world and along the way encountered God.  But, here, that word “saved” appears, as if it’s past tense, as if it is some badge of honor that we earn and wear as we continue to seem to be forced to live in this sin-filled world in which we live.  Somewhere along the way eschatology became realized, “already”, rather than something to which we look and live into.

Now keep in mind that this letter was probably written in the late first century.  Jesus had come, died on the cross, and the Resurrection on which everything that is “Christian” is based had happened.  And Jesus had promised to return.  That had been imminent for Paul.  And, yet, it hadn’t happened yet.  The first century followers of Christ (it still wasn’t “Christianity”, per se, the way we think of it today) were wondering if perhaps they had misunderstood, perhaps they had gotten the whole thing wrong.  So, the emphasis for the writer of Ephesians (as well as others), was a notion of salvation as something that had already happened, an emphasis on the crowned Jesus sitting at the right hand of God.  And for those of us who are still mired in the throes of worldly evil and worldly despairs, there became a separation, a dualism that was put into place that pretty much exists even today.  So many of us live in this world, burdened by sin, and hope against hope that God will swoop in and save us. And it becomes even easier for us to separate the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved”, those who “get it” and those who don’t.

Really?  Is that it?  What happened to “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, BUT in order that the world might be saved through him.“?  God’s vision of the Kingdom of God is not to shun the world or even to rid us of all things worldly.  God’s vision of the Kingdom of God is to recreate the world into what it is called to be–the whole world, not the ones who follow the rules or the ones who are “good”, but everyone.  So, in this life of faith, we do not magically crossover to being “saved” from being “unsaved” and then sit back and wait for God to pluck us out of our miserable existence.  Rather, we yield to new meanings and new circumstances as God recreates our lives into Life and brings about the fullness of the Kingdom of God throughout this wonderfully created world in which we live.

That’s what Lent is about–new meanings and new circumstances.  Maybe it’s about dropping the “but” in life, ridding ourselves of the dualism that we have so carefully constructed to affirm our own understanding of who God is.  God created the life that each of us has.  Why would God call us to leave it behind?  Rather God is recreating it as we speak, bringing it into being, into the image that God envisions for it.  You know, if we look at things with the eyes of a world where God is not, a world that waits for God to return, there is always a “but”; BUT if we look at all of Creation with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of those who believe in a God who came into our midst to show us how much we are loved, everything has an AND.  Another word for that is grace—undeserved, unmerited, uncontrollable.  It is God’s gift to each of us.  And all we are and all we do and all that happens to us comes by grace.  We are saved not by what we do (or don’t do); we are saved by grace.

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Grace and Peace,

 Shelli

The Wilderness of Ourselves

Three Crosses and Silhoutted Person in Prayer at SunriseScripture Text:  John 3: 14-17

 

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This is it: THE verse.  So what we do with THE verse?  It’s on street corners and billboards and T-Shirts and tattoos and faces and signs at sporting events.  I think it is often read as some sort of great reward for doing the right things.  You know, if you do everything you’re supposed to do, you’ll be rewarded when it’s all said and done.  And if you don’t, well you’re just out of luck.  So, look at me…do what I do, go to church where I go, be what I am, look like I look.  I’m saved; are you?  (I hate that!)

But we’ve read it wrong.  For God so loved the world—not the ones in the right church or the right country or the right side of the line—but the WORLD.  God loved the world, everything about the world, everyone in the world, so much, so very, very, VERY much, that God came and walked among us, sending One who was the Godself in every way, to lead us home, to actually BRING us home, to lead us to God.  Are you saved?  Yes…every day, every hour, over and over and over again.  I’m being saved with every step and move and breath I take.  I think that’s what God does.  God loves us SO much that that is what God does.  God is saving us.

God came into the world to save the world.  So why would we interpret this to mean that God somehow has quite loving some of us or that we have to somehow bargain with God to begin loving us or that “being saved” is a badge of honor?  See, God loves us so much that God is saving us from ourselves.  It’s back to that snake thing.  OK, kids, you think your main problem is snakes?  Alright, here it is, look at it, hanging there on a tree.  Look at it, really, really look at it.  Quash your fear, let your preconceptions go, just do it.  There now, all is well.  No more snakes.

OK, kids, what is the deal this time?  You have let the world order run your life.  You have become someone that you are not.  You have allowed yourself to be driven by fear and preconceptions and greed.  You have opted for security over freedom, held on to what is not yours, and settled for vengeance rather than compassion and love.   I created you for more than this.  I love you too much for this to go on.  Look up.  Look there, hanging on the tree, there on the cross.  Stare at the Cross.  Enter the Cross.  See how much I love you.  In this moment, I take all your sin, all your misgivings, all your inhumanity and let it die with me.  All is well.  All is well with your soul.

In this season of Lent, we inch closer and closer to the cross.  We shy away.  It’s hard to look at.  But perhaps it’s not the gory details, but the realization that we are the culprits.  Lent provides a mirror into which we look and find ourselves standing in the wilderness of ourselves.  But the Cross is our way out (not our way “in” to God, but our way “out” of ourselves).  Because God loves us so much that God cannot fathom leaving us behind.  But the Cross is the place where we finally know that. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

 

First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX
First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, TX

In Christian language, to be truly human is to shape our lives into an offering to God. But we are lost children who have wandered away from home, forgotten what a truly human life might be. When Jesus, our older brother, presented himself in the sanctuary of God, his humanity fully intact, he did not cower as though he were in a place of “blazing fire and darkness and gloom.” Instead he called out, “I’m home, and I have the children with me.” (Thomas Long, from “What God Wants”, 19 March, 2012.)

 

FOR TODAY:  Bask in God’s love.  Look up.  What do you fear?  What is wrong?  Look at the Cross.  All is well.  All is well with your soul.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

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