The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. -Romans 8:26-27
Sunday, July 26, 2020
Sunday, July 19, 2020
give me an undivided heart to revere your name. - Psalm 86:11
What does it mean to have an undivided heart? Specifically, the psalmist requests an undivided heart for the purposes of revering, holding in awe and respect, God's name. A heart that is focused on keeping God's name holy is truly an undivided heart.
In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes, "Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God... Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it, but it is primarily a matter of the heart, which fixes its gaze upon other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils. It neither cares for God nor expects good things from him sufficiently to trust that he wants to help, nor does it believe that whatever good it encounters comes from God." (Book of Concord, 386f)
Our hearts are divided if we believe that God takes care of the next life, but not this one. Our hearts are divided if we say we are God's people, but we speak ill of others or feign ignorance about the oppression and pain of the world. Our hearts are divided when we worship God with our words, but our daily actions are focused on success, status, and stuff. Our hearts are divided when we take all the credit for what we have and what we do and do not offer praise and gratitude to the One who created everything and is at ceaseless work in the world.
When we ask God, through this psalm and our prayers, for an undivided heart, we must accept the changes that will bring. As our heart finds a permanent anchor in God's presence and power, there will be a shift in our priorities. We will find ourselves aligned with God's will and God's way. When we try to go our own way, we will experience the pain of division once more.
How can we know what is God's will? We look to Jesus. In today's parable, the gospel writer expects those hearing the parable to align themselves with the disciples and, therefore, also with the workers in the master's household. That means us. We do not concern ourselves with determining who is going to hell and who isn't. We know a weed when we see it, but our work is to tend to the wheat. Our task, the task of hearts aligned with God, is to take care of the soil, the wheat itself, and the surrounding field so that God's hope, God's love, God's mercy, God's justice matures and increases its yield. The harvest and the destruction of the weeds are God's own work of God's own creation, while we are hired hands for that work in the same creation.
I don't like to speak for this long in metaphors. I understand the desire to have a parable simplified and the desire to have the pastor clarify, once and for all, weeds do this, wheat does this. Be wheat. End of sermon.
That's not how parables work. Additionally, if I do that, then you know that my heart is divided. It means I care more about you and your comfort than I do about God's expectations of me and the holy discomfort the Word stirs for all of us. When preachers make things too easy and too comfortable too often, we are making an idol of you liking us and our preaching. When I'm unfolding pieces, but leaving you to complete some of the puzzle, we are both respecting that God's word is a little bit mysterious, a little bit disquieting, and something from which we wrestle a blessing, like Jacob.
In that light, back to the undivided heart. But, pastor, I can hear someone saying: what about my family, what about my job, what about my friends, what about things I have to do for the community?
Friends, God has given you all those things. God’s love has been poured out for all, from the beginning of creation, through the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through to the Spirit’s presence today. If you find a division between how your care for your family or how you act in community roles and what you believe God wants of you, then you are truly experiencing a divided heart. The forces that oppose God often try to mask things like co-dependency, suffering, and complications as love by saying that life is hard, but God is with us. Life can be difficult and God is with us, but suffering and pain are not inevitable. Our attempts to control others, to relieve them of the burdens of their bad choices, to make people like us, to demand respect- all energies that go to this kind of thing and related situations are part of having a divided heart.
When we ask God for an undivided heart, a unified hope, a clarified awareness and trust in God's power, the other realities of our life will fall in line. That doesn't mean ranching will suddenly become easier or our family member with addiction will suddenly be well. What our undivided heart will do is help us to live peaceably in the midst of life's complications.
Once upon a time, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska for a pastor's conference. It was early November, but I'd ridden up with a friend. One of my friends flew to Fairbanks and rented a car, but it did not have winter tires. She missed the turn to the retreat center and found herself down a hill that she didn't have the tread or engine power to get back up to the main road. She called our group for help and three of us went out in a car to get her. Since she was down the hill, we couldn't see her headlights and she wasn't exactly sure where she was. As we drove back and forth, one of the other pastors got agitated. "What if we can't find her?" she said. "Will she have to be out here all night?"
"We will find her," assured the other person in our search party.
We got out on the side of the road and called for her, while our lost friend was on the phone. She told us she could hear our voices, but couldn't see any street signs where she was. We told her to stay put and that we would walk down to her.
Again, the other woman in the search party was distressed, "What if we can't get her car out of there?"
I hadn't said too much at this point, because I had fairly recently joined a 12-step group. My new work through the group had made me very aware of my own anxiety and my desire to try to solve problems quickly, in effort to get people to like me and to be considered proficient and useful. So, in our search for our friend, I had called her, but mostly stayed quiet because I was paying attention to details and to my own reactions.
When the leader of our rescue party said again, "What if we can't find her?" I finally looked at her and said, "We can do anything for 12 hours that would appall us if we had to keep it up for a lifetime."
The other woman gave me the most horrified look and said, "A lifetime? What are you talking about?"
She had to think I was high as a kite and who could blame her? My words weren't soothing. To her, they didn't seem to take the problem seriously at all. For me, they were very serious. We would figure out a solution, eventually, but our anxiety wouldn't control the situation, it was only controlling us. I did have the good sense not to say that or to say the dreaded and unhelpful "calm down".
We rescued our friend. As we did so, I walked around the community we were in and then figured out how to drive the car out and back to the retreat center. I was the last one to attempt to drive the car out because each of the others attempted to get it up the hill. While they tried, I checked out our surroundings and discerned what I thought might be a back way, which turned out to be correct.
I always hesitate to use an example like this because I know you often remember the story and not the point I am hoping you will take away. The point I want to make here isn't that you should stay calm in a crisis or that God will always provide a way or even that 12-step programs are useful. Those are good points for another day.
My point is this: that is a time in my life that I can point to having an undivided heart. I knew, intellectually and spiritually, that God's desire for me was for health, well-being, and wholeness. I knew that some of the pain in my life was of my own doing and some was from others because I had let them take up space that wasn't theirs to take. This unity in my heart, my hope for healing, my experience of God's nearness helped me to know that a stressful experience wasn't going to last forever. By focusing on the only forever I knew, God and God's love, I didn't give the stress of the situation any more power than it needed to try to solve the problem.
Not all situations are this easy. Not all people are going to be working with us on a team. Not everyone will respond kindly when we explain that we are trying to consider God's will for ourselves, our family, our jobs, our role as citizens, and our faithful actions. An undivided heart, though, will guide us in perceiving God's nearness. It will prevent us from making idols of our heritage, our denomination, our political affiliation, what we see on social media, what we read in the paper, what our friend groups expect of us, and so on. An undivided heart, a heart that desires to be aligned with God's will and way, finds peace in unusual places and hope in unusual times because God's love surrounds and carries it.
Let us ask God for undivided hearts, hearts that are prepared as good soil to be nourished by God's word and that are strengthened to be workers for Christ’s sake in the world. Let us ask God for undivided hearts that will work with one another and with unexpected allies to end oppression, to bring justice, and to be part of establishing God's true peace. Let us ask God for undivided hearts that worship and trust in God alone, more than our own understanding or habits.
And if we are not ready yet for undivided hearts, then let us ask God for the courage to desire them.
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
The baptized life is a life of standing inside the fire. In this revelation, holy baptism is not fire insurance. Holy baptism is fire assurance.
so that [you] may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace. (Holy Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
There's this love that is burning
Deep in my soul
Constantly yearning to get out of control
Wanting to fly higher and higher
I can't abide standing outside the fire.
Thursday, May 21, 2020
Now we have the ever-present questions about what we can do, what we should do, and from what should we abstain. In the conversations around masks, distance, and open v. close, the word "fear" gets bandied about. It is murmured that people who are cautious are "fearful" or being led by fear, as opposed to faithfulness or freedom.
I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. As a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a friend, as a pastor, as a neighbor, as a daughter, as a citizen, I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.
My heart broke when I posted a sign in March, closing the church to the public and to in-person worship. Praying for those who depended on the building for 12-step help, a source of community, and actual sanctuary, I ached and I grieve.
Another fissure came through weeks of preaching without seeing faces, feeling the energy in the room, or hearing singing other than my own. Learning that singing may be off the table for awhile brought tears and sorrow too deep even for sighs. Remembering our harmonies between the Yellowstone and the Boulder, I hung up my harp. I ached and I grieve.
The experience of Holy Communion brings heart wholeness through Christ's presence in the elements and in the community as we eat, drink, and breathe together. In our present fast from the physical sacrament, the pieces of my heart vibrate with longing. Making the decision for the fast was right for our community, but I ached and I grieve.
This past week, I denied a person a hug because I had permitted a person outside my family to hug me the day before. In embracing one another, I also embraced a waiting period to be sure I neither caught nor transmitted anything but love and compassion. To be physically present to one meant denying another. For the same reason, I am continuing to only eat takeout from local restaurant and not to sit inside. In the waiting, I ached and I grieve.
A friend of mine, another pastor, talked with her community about the fact that continuing to worship virtually permitted the pastors of the church to be present- with masks and other precautions- to the sick and dying of the church. When a pastor hasn't been exposed to 50, 60, 90, 150 people on a Sunday, he can more easily go to a bedside or home because it is a more calculated risk for himself and the person he is visiting. This isn't the case in all places right now, but it is for this church and the pastors in question. In choosing the needs of the few for the sake of spiritual care, I am hoping not to drive away the many. For the whole church, I ached and I grieve.
I have offered commendation of the dying over the phone. Heartbreak. I have watched divisions and harsh words in online spaces and in-person conversations. Heartbreak. I have stood on steps and talked across the porch to people who are bored, lonely, and worried. Heartbreak. I have wept over whether I am currently an effective pastor to the 13 people with no internet connection at all. Heartbreak. I have seen an increase in our church's attendance online and wondered how we may be true community to those who are experiencing church in a helpful way for the first time. Heartache.
Recommendations about how to space people in pews, skipping coffee hour, and how to encourage masks in church are difficult to decipher and painful to consider.
Worry about people whose marriages were struggling, children and teens who need structure for their mental well-being, seniors who live alone and receive little information or communication- these things fill my mind.
Navigating tense political, emotional, and social conversations is a tightrope that I balance across, Bible in hand, not because I want to be liked, but because I want the relationship to remain open for the sake of Christ in both of us.
This is the truth, but not all of it. All of it would be too much to write and too much to read.
One final truth, though, I am not afraid of re-opening because of COVID-19 or because I am "cowed" by rules and regulations.
I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if someone or several someones became sick at church.
I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if we resume in-person worship, which means I am unable to visit the most vulnerable, even on their porch.
I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take resuming worship only to refrain from Holy Communion, sharing the peace, corporate speaking, and group singing.
I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot taken it if I have to do more funerals, by interment only, and mourn apart from the consolation of being physically together.
So, yes, I am afraid. I am afraid not of the virus, but of more unending, bone-deep wearying heartbreak.
Some of these things will not be avoidable. They will likely come because this will be a long journey. But you can carry the baton for your pastor (and your neighbor) a little way if you understand and respect that they are not afraid. They are heartbroken.
Sunday, May 3, 2020
And then the congregation responds, "Amen."
Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things,
graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.
Being a pastor creates a restlessness in me for service and creating community. This restlessness is the Holy Spirit stirring at my will. In the details, though, I am met by Christ who provides the strength and compassion.
No one carries a candle home and tends it for glory. They do it for love. And it is the same love that keeps on hoping for the day when we can all safely worship together in person, again.