Friday, June 8, 2018

No Breath Holding

With the apparent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week, I keep thinking about a sign that I recently saw on Onslow Beach in North Carolina. This sign is clearly for the sake of the people swimming and the lifeguards in the area. I think, though, this sign has implications beyond the beach, beyond the ocean, beyond vacation and into every day "just keep swimming" with which many people struggle.

There have been three times in my life when I thought it would be better "not to be". Even in my brain that doesn't quite function as it ought, angels and endorphins worked overtime and I survived. Lots of people don't. It's not that they didn't have angels and endorphins, it is that the lies of the pain made it hard to hear the truth.

When your brain is unwell, when you are mentally ill, your misfiring synapses lie to you. They tell you that the world would be better off, that oblivion is easier, that while people may be sad- you are saving them from having to deal with you- pathetic wretch that you are. The misfiring synapses of your unwell brain do not care about your family and friends, the extended community who loves you, the hope and a future that is God's plan for you, the real contributions that you will intentionally and unintentionally make for the fullness of your days. They just lie. Mostly, because they are symptoms of illness, they don't know any better. But those cruel jerks can be loud. So damn loud.

Which brings me to the sign.


If you think that your body, brain, or spirit are lying to you, don't hold your breath. Don't keep faking it. Don't pretend you aren't drowning. Don't pretend it doesn't hurt. Don't just keep swimming. Tell someone, anyone, over and over and over, that you ache. 

And, yes, I know that feels impossible. 

I know there are people counting on you to keep it together, to be the life of the party, to put on the good face, to be the one "with it all together", but the truth is that there are MANY PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOU FOR WHO YOU ARE AND NOT YOUR ABILITIES, TALENTS, RESOURCES, OR PERSONALITY. They love you for you and, even if it takes a hot minute to regroup when you are honest, the people who love you will tear the world apart to find the wholeness that is the Divine will for you (because it is so for all people). 

Don't hold your breath. Breathe... breathe your truth of pain and grief and fear. And... And... And... None of those is bigger or truer than your worth, your value, your significance, and the love that exists for and in you. 

You matter. YOU matter. You MATTER. 

Don't hold your breath. Use it. 


The sign also applies to you when you are worried about someone you love. Maybe that person has seemed down for so long and now things are just looking up (this is often the riskiest time because the person has the energy to follow through with a long-held plan). Maybe your fun friend or your strong friend has seemed a little "off" or more unavailable lately. 

Don't hold your breath. 

Use it. Make the call. Drop by. Set up a lunch date, walk, coffee, coloring contest, whatever. Pay attention to old patterns. If your friend tries to resort to joking or deflects, look in their eyes, be honest, and say, "I care about you. You matter me. I want to be here for you. I want to help you." 

Don't hold your breath. 

Think about the resources in your community. Is 911 (or your local emergency #) is the best resource for a person who is suicidal? What are the community mental health resources? What would you do if your friend said they had a plan? 

Even if you don't know what to say, sitting quietly and affirming the worth of another by presence says more than many words. 

Don't hold your breath. 

Talk honestly about struggles in your friend groups and in your church. Don't accept a rosy picture all the time or demand to be "comfortable" when people are sharing their pain, grief, or fear. Allow stories of those who have been left behind after someone dies from suicide to be told. Be truthful about mental health, its importance, and how to take care of one's self mentally. 

Don't hold your breath. 

Embrace the sanctified imagination to think of Mary with post-partum depression, David after Absalom's death, Job's reactions to his terrible friends, Saul's confusion, Naomi's bitterness, and Onesimus's fear. 

Be willing to consider medications that might help silence your lying synapses by getting them to function properly- the same way you might take medicine for diabetes, chronic indigestion, asthma, or cancer. 

Be frank about your concern for someone's well-being. It is okay to say, "It is because I love you that I am asking this. Are you thinking about suicide?" 

Don't hold your breath. 

Beloved, we are in this life together. I want to live it with you. Some days, I can't swim, but I have learned to trust that the current will keep me moving. I lift my feet to try to keep from getting snagged on the bottom, I look ahead- hoping to avoid rocks, and I just float. Eventually, I'll swim again. 

But you, dear one, you matter to me. I cannot promise that life won't hurt, that there aren't terrible things that will happen, that sometimes the monsters seem to have a season. 

I can, however, promise this: You matter. You are loved. You are necessary. You are God's Beloved. 

Anything that says any different is lying to you, even if it is coming from inside your house saying that I don't really know you. Misfiring synapses are part of the forces that defy God and they lie. 

You can say no to them through honesty, through seeking help, and by leaning into being loved. 

And by this- 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

When It's Complicated

A few days ago, I was driving down a busy Anchorage road with both my kids in the car. I glimpsed something in my lane up ahead and tried to make sense of what it was. As part of my brain registered that it was a crumpled American flag in my lane, the other part of my brain began to scan for where I could safely pull off and grab it, before it was run over, soiled, further disrespected.

I have not said the Pledge of Allegiance in years. I remember clearly the curious looks I got for standing with my hands by side on my son's first day of kindergarten, silent while everyone else recited along with the principal over the intercom. I love to sing and the American national anthem is great for a soprano who wants to pretend she's Beverly Sills, but I stay quiet. My relationship to my country is not my greatest allegiance and I've pledged everything I've got to the One Who Loved Me First.

Due to my activism, my efforts to bring change on a variety of levels of society, to what people are sure they know about my politics... (Just a week ago someone mentioned assuming everyone in a group was registered as voters for a certain party- I'm not registered with any party.)... due to what people see and hear from me, assumptions are made. For most of those doing the assuming, it is an impossible idea that I would be found sprinting down the sidewalk toward a crumpled American flag, hoping to reach it before the situation was any worse. Yet there I was.

When I was about 50 yards from the flag, a man sprinted across several lanes of traffic from the other side of the road and snatched it up, rescuing the cloth itself from additional ignominy. And I returned to my car, panting, trying to figure out how to explain to my children why their mom was suddenly possessed with a frantic need to rescue a particularly patterned fabric from the street.

I barely understood the frantic need myself.

I wanted to save my own hope in the flag as a symbol of what this nation can be and could be.

I wanted to show my children that you can be deeply frustrated and disappointed and still faithful.

I want to continue to have the hope of General Lafayette in the "perpetual union of the United States" that it may "one day save the world".

Inside me, beyond how impotent I feel, how grieved, how desperate, how revolutionary, I believe there is a soul of an idea of who the United States can be that seeks to repair the wounds of the Doctrine of Discovery, to heal and repent of the on-going injury of enslavement, racism, and white supremacy, that truly embraces the concepts of equality and equity relative to justice, access, and opportunity.

My jaw is tight, I cry, and I'm so tired.

Better is possible.

Surely, better is possible.

It is a sign of high privilege that I can even entertain that notion.

And, yet, I know that I am an Esther among Esthers, an Abigail among Abigails, a Huldah among Huldahs, a Priscilla among Priscillas. I am not alone in the work or the call or the disappointment or the anger.

I will resist the efforts to cave and accept oppression, silence, complicity, lies, or misdirection as normal, representative, or necessary.

I will fight.

And I will hope.

And, if I have to again, I will sprint down a sidewalk along Tudor Road on a Monday evening, to rescue a tangible symbol that is more than history; it is possibility. It is that possibility that my Truest Allegiance will not let me ignore.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

40 M&Ms from the Galatians

It is my father's belief that people understand history best if they know how they are connected to it. Thus, he used to explain that he knew his grandparents who had been born near the turn of the 20th century. The oldest people they would have known would have remembered the time before the American Civil War. The oldest people they knew when they were children might have remembered the presidency of Andrew Jackson or the War of 1812.

Thus, because of my dad, I think of time in 50-year stories. I know someone born in 1954. If that person knew someone born in 1904, we've covered a century of knowledge. I'm only a time collapse away from a person alive before the Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk.

At confirmation, the other day, the kids and I did a little math.

Let's say Paul's letter to the Galatians (the frontrunner for being the oldest text in the New Testament) is circa 50 A.D./C.E.

2018 - 50 = 1968 (so that many years separate us from the letter's estimated writing)

1968/50 = 39.36 (Per my 50-year story model, we are slightly less than 40 units from the writing of Galatians.)

I had the confirmands set out a row of 40 M&Ms or Skittles from them across a table. Those 40 M&Ms are forty life stories that are between us and Paul's letter to the Galatians. While there might not actually be a straight line between any of us and that group, there is a direct line of narrative and spiritual inheritance from the Galatians to us (contemporary travelers on the Way of Christ).

I find that amazing to consider. We are 40 generations from Paul, 40 M&Ms between us and the birth of people wrestling with what it meant to be counter-cultural in the Roman Empire. (In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free...) There's less than a full Skittle between the Galatians and the life of Jesus. We are 10 Skittles from Martin Luther and he's 30 M&Ms from Paul.

And all of this is a blip when we consider that we are contained within the kairos of Divine, Eternal Love. Chronos means chronological or sequential time, whereas kairos is a reference to an open space in time that create opportunity and right moments. All our M&Ms are provided contained within God's own self and God's own time.

I realize that this way of thinking about time is a little abstract. Yet, it was moving to see 7th and 8th graders contemplate the reality that there are 40 life stories (and more) between them and the writing of the oldest book (a letter) in the New Testament. They reported thinking of everything in the Bible, including, Jesus as long, long ago and far, far away.

The truth is the brown-skinned Jew from Palestine is closer than we think. And his first witnesses are only 40 candies away.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Starring The Good Shepherd and Me (Sermon)

John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16- 24

I like to read. While I love books- the real physical nature of books, I actually love the act of reading more than the thing to be read. I do realize that and I do appreciate that not everyone likes to read. Some people prefer movies or audio books or graphic novels or magazines. (I am a terrible magazine reader, same for short stories.)

The elements that make these things good or enjoyable or engaging are the same across the genres. Even in non-fiction (book or movie), engaging characters, good storytelling, and captivating stakes are necessary. Books about salt, documentaries about wheat, comics about the Holocaust, and movies about fly-fishing have all been blockbusters in their area.

Character and plot are like the chicken and the egg. I heard someone say plot is character in action. This means that interesting people doing something un-engaging isn’t any better than nondescript characters doing something thrilling. Whether a story is told in a book or in a movie, the person who is interacting with the story needs a way to be drawn in, to learn about what is happening, and to see the characters in relation to one another or to their surroundings.

Today’s readings tell a story about us. Since the fourth Sunday after Easter has been designated “Good Shepherd Sunday”, each year we read a portion of the 10thchapter of the gospel according to John and Psalm 23. John 10 focuses on Jesus describing himself as a gate or a door, a sheepfold or pen, and as the eponymous Good Shepherd. In Chapter 9, he healed a man who had been blind from birth and now he is speaking about himself, to the disciples, so that they might also be moved to sight. In this context, “seeing” means trusting in Jesus as God. 

When the writer of the Fourth Gospel calls Jesus the Good Shepherd, he is stirring up particular imagery for his community. The prophet Ezekiel speaks significantly of God’s provision of a good shepherd for the people whom God loves. Shepherding is significantly connected with David and his lineage, since he was a shepherd in his pre-king days. Psalm 23, generally attributed to David, creates a picture of God’s own self as a shepherd- providing, protecting, leading, and comforting.

When the gospel writer put words to skin and scroll, it was not merely so that people would have intellectual knowledge about the Incarnation- God with skin on (otherwise known as Jesus). The Evangelist is writing a story, creating a narrative, and the people who receive the gospel story are characters within it. It is as though the author makes takes the facts, shapes the account, and then says, “Who are you in this story?”

If your life was a book or a movie, a comic or a magazine article, what is the role of the Good Shepherd in that story? How we define and relate to Christ as Christians, as followers on the Way of Jesus, as children of a living God who has raised One among us from the dead… how we define Jesus gives shape, dimension, and direction to our own lives and to our life of discipleship together.

We are called, through our baptisms, Holy Communion, and the Spirit, into a story where the Good Shepherd is a main character. If someone were reviewing the book or movie of your life, what kind of role would the Good Shepherd have?

- Co-star (always together, it’s practically a buddy movie)
- Best supporting role (at the end of each chapter, she reflected on the words of the Good Shepherd)
- Bit part (Ah, yes, the Good Shepherd had a walk-on role in that one intense scene)
- Producer credit or dedication page without further mention?

If who Jesus is for us, as individuals and as a community, determines who we are, what we do, and how we seek to be in the world, what does it mean then to define him as the Good Shepherd? He defines himself as one who reveals the true will and love of God, as one who draws all people to himself, as one who lives and dies for the sake of the sheep. If this inclusive, inviting, compassionate, life-giving Jesus is whom we follow, trust, and meet in the world- our lives, our daily story, should reflect that. 

The writer of the epistle, 1 John, is probably not the same writer as the gospel, but they were possibly in the same community at different times. The epistle writer says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A life story that features a good shepherd as a main character, a significant dynamic presence to the plot and the framing, with not be filled with hollow words. Hollow words are empty promises, perfunctory prayers, or dismissive platitudes. A biographical film with a good shepherd will not allow the action to be stopped by the specters of shame, fear, or guilt. Those are poor fodder and the good shepherd lays a table in front of those enemies, a table of grace and healing, and tells those forces, “You don’t eat here and you have no role in this story.”

When the Good Shepherd has a significant role in the life story of a character (you or me) or a community (us), love in truth and action pour forth as a plotline that pulls in all kinds of other players- the kinds of people you might not always expect to see singing or gardening or feeding or eating or playing together, but are suddenly side-by-side in a new chapter. When the Good Shepherd is the story, the dark valleys of death and grief are passable, even in their fearsomeness. When the Good Shepherd has a leading role in a narrative, the realities of goodness and mercy not only follow other characters, but they chase them down, surround them, and grace abounds.

We have been brought into such a story, not by our own will, but by God’s desire to draw us in, to draw all people in, through Jesus. When we respond to this narrative, this story of grace and hope, we are not only clarifying our own role in our life story- as one who is on the Way of Jesus- but we are also shaping the world around us by reflecting in truth and action who Jesus is in our lives. When our deeds- small and large- underscore that the Good Shepherd is the main character in our life story, we reveal a peace and confidence in the plot line of our lives. If character drives plot and the Good Shepherd is the main character in our lives, then we know the actions to which we are called, imitating said shepherd through inclusion, mercy, provision, and safety of other sheep from all kinds of folds. We also know how the story ends- with our dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Atonement (Easter Sermon)

Mark 16:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

We don’t often talk about the order of the books of the Bible. You and I both know that it didn’t fall from the sky, bound in leather, and written in King James English, with the words of Jesus in red. While I love to talk about the whole story of the compilation of the written word, today I’d like to zero in on the two accounts of the resurrection that we heard.

As they say, timing is everything. 1 Corinthians, a letter from Paul to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, is older than the written gospel account according to Mark. Almost all, if not all, of Paul’s remaining seven letters were written before the written gospel accounts were widely circulated. Mark is the oldest of the four gospels that were retained in the written canon or generally accepted books of the written scripture. All that is to say that when we look at today’s readings, what Paul has to say was the generally accepted story about the resurrection in his neck of the woods, ten to fifteen years before Mark’s account was written and moving around in the countryside.*

            Why does that matter? If we consider that Paul’s account was the dominant narrative around 45-55 c.e./a.d. , then we see a story that was spread with some confidence. People with reputations to lose were willing to risk them on spreading the good news of Jesus Christ as they had received it from credible eyewitnesses and community elders. That message, that Jesus had been killed, but that God had raised him from the dead, was shared and the hope of that message created a new kind of community.

            This community, along with the risen Christ, was the kind of welcome and drawing in that even gave hope and awareness of redemption to Paul, who had been a persecutor of that self-same group of believers. Paul speaks with fervor to the Corinthians about the faith they have come to trust, especially because it put the story of Jesus- his life, death, and resurrection- in accordance with the scriptures.

            Thus, those who follow the Way of Christ have not only learned about faithful living in imitating Jesus, but also about the true, abiding, and grace-filled nature of God. Since the Divine nature is eternally present and magnetic, the reality of Jesus reveals forever truths about the mystery and fullness of who God is and what God is about.

            Now let’s say that there are fifteen years between when Paul writes to the Corinthians and when Mark, along with others, writes down a gospel account. Fifteen years. If we pick the earliest possible date for Paul’s letter, 50 c.e., that puts Mark’s writing at year 65.

            What’s happening in the Palestinian countryside in 65 c.e.? Nero is the emperor of Rome until the year 68. Nero’s reign is generally associated with tyranny and extravagance. He liked what he liked and he liked people who made the things he wanted to happen. Even though his reign is still in the larger period called the Pax Romana or the Roman peace, it is only because Rome was not expanding and was generally not at war with larger enemies, though the emperors during this period did squash small-scale rebellions.

            During Nero’s reign, Judeans revolted against Roman rule and oppression. Some Judean Christians were still meeting in synagogues and had ties to the Jewish community. When the whole area rebelled against Rome, it affected everyone. And Rome slapped back.

            So Mark is writing the narrative of Jesus, the Son of God. In Mark’s narrative, some unexpected people- Gentiles, women, demons, children- recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Others- the disciples, religious leaders, faithful Jews- struggle to understand Jesus’ message, deeds, and death. Imagine, if you will, that you are in a time of political unrest, a time of extreme disagreement between citizens, a time of force and violence from the state and actors for the government, and, within religious communities, a struggle between which people are the “most” faithful. Are you able to imagine that?
            Thus, we find the collapse between Paul’s confident account of the resurrection and its credible witnesses and Mark’s women fearfully approaching the empty tomb. Writers shape stories for their community. They write the truth in shape and size that their people- readers and hearers- can handle and not be driven away.  Mark’s hearers will be scorched by Paul’s confident narrative.

            In their experience of community destruction, fights about inclusion, and wondering what will remain, the Markan community feels betrayed. As I read through the end of Mark this week, I was intrigued by how often the word “betrayed” showed up, how frequently Jesus was betrayed- by people pleading ignorance, people denying, people abandoning, people watching from afar, people actually betraying- even with a kiss.

            Why does Mark find betrayal of Jesus so significant? It may well be because, unlike Paul’s audience, Mark’s hearers feel betrayed themselves. In fact, they feel betrayed by God. They had believed the story of the resurrection. They had trusted the accounts of the witnesses. They had risked their community and family life to imitate Jesus by healing, serving, and sharing his story. Did they get safety? Were they relieved of Roman oppression? Were their holdings multiplied? Did they find all their needs met?

            Thus, Mark finds himself within a community that is asking the ultimate question, “Was it worth it?” Was the cost of their discipleship worth it? You can’t eat eternal life. It doesn’t clothe anyone. It builds no houses to keep out rain and snow. As real a promise as it is, eternal life does not end wars, plant seeds, or create justice and reconciliation.

            So what was resurrection for, asks Mark’s people, if we are continuing to suffer? Does resurrection mean anything if it doesn’t change our day to day lives?

            Stay with me, now, because I’m going to make a leap. I was recently listening to a fictional story with my son. In the story, a boy made a phone that talked to ghosts. On the ghost phone, the boy called Abraham Lincoln and the boy’s mom called Amelia Earhart. Daniel, my son, told me he would call Neil Armstrong and ask him about walking on the moon.

            He then asked whom I would call. I thought for a minute and then I told him that I would call Sophie Scholl and I would ask her if she thought it was worth it. 1942, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were beheaded for spearheading the White Rose campaign in Germany. The White Rose campaign spread leaflets, primarily on university campuses in Germany, about concentration camps, the misinformation of the Third Reich, and the violence of the Nazi regime.

            I want to tell Sophie that the war went on for three more years, that genocide continues to be a reality in the world, and that there are still people who believe in the supremacy of whiteness over other races and ethnicities. I want to ask her if, knowing all that, she would still do it again. Would she still, knowing that she would die and not necessarily cause the uprising she hoped for, would she still spread those leaflets, speak up for justice, and die for what she believed was right? And, frankly, I don’t know if I want her to say yes or no.

            I wonder the same thing about Peter and Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, Mary- the mother of our Lord, and anyone who has struggled, suffered, and/or been killed for their work. Atonement literally means at-one-ment. All of these people are trying to create an atonement- a reconciliation and repair- of serious wrongs that have been done. Is discipleship atonement worth the cost, if it’s your life?

            Going back to Mark, then, it strikes me that the gospel writer is attempting to answer this question for the followers of Jesus who feel betrayed by God. It turns out that God will always say, “Yes, I would do it again.” Poured out into flesh, experiencing the joys and griefs of being human, healing, teaching, and forgiving for the sake of community and hope, reversing human attempts at final rejection in death through the power of resurrection… Mark sees God’s word as “Yes. Yes, I would do it again.”

            It is in God’s own completion of the work of atonement that we come to understand the true power of resurrection in a world that aches with racism, poverty, LGBTQ-exclusion, class divisions, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and general bitterness and division. Resurrection doesn’t mean anything for our day-to-day lives unless we accept the work of atonement. Not only God’s atoning work, but the discipleship at-one-ment we are called to in all our vocations- work, family roles, friendships, citizenship, consumer, and follower of Jesus. If we are hesitant to take up the work of discipleship atonement, we struggle to see the Easter message in our everyday experience. Conversely, commitment to atonement work at home, at church, and in the world brings a deep awareness of the risen Jesus meeting us in all places, in all people, at all times.

            For those of you have received the gift of faith easily, this concept may seem self-evident- of course, God would do it again. God planned it the first time. You are right. You are 1 Corinthians people. Paul’s confidence and credible witness is your shared experience.

            For those of you who wrestle with the gift of faith, who feel that God has presented you with a Rubik’s cube of information that you are trying to make into a neatly solved puzzle, you are not alone. Mark’s community wanted relief from feeling betrayed and from feeling like betrayers because they were not like Paul. They needed to know that their fear, their uncertainty, and their silence was possible in conjunction with their faith. To you, to you, I say, God would do it again. Mark’s short, fast-paced gospel features story after story after story that point to God’s “yes” in Jesus as a revelation of the Divine “yes” of eternity.

            In God’s holy, mysterious reality, atonement and discipleship are always worth the cost. And it would be worth it to save just one. Because that one is beloved, beloved by God. And that one is us. That one is you.

For the sake of the world. For you. Christ is risen.

(He is risen, indeed.)

* Oral accounts that dovetail with Mark’s account were likely in circulation prior to the writing of the gospel narrative.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Transfigured Alleluias (Easter 2018)

Mark 16:1-8

The butterflies above us are more than just paper shapes. Seven weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we waved strips of paper that said “Alleluia” and “Hallelujah”. As we heard the story of Elijah and Moses appearing to Jesus, the awed disciples, and Jesus’ dazzling appearance (as well as the command to listen to the Beloved Son), we waved our papers. We knew the goodbye was coming, the season with no alleluia.

At the end of that service, we carried the “alleluias” away- putting away the phrase “Praise God” for the season of Lent. It is not that we haven’t been grateful or that in Lent, resurrection isn’t true. It is just a trip within the journey of our faith life for more solemn contemplation and reflection.

We are not who we were seven weeks ago. We have experienced physical changes, events of life- both good and bad, and learned or forgotten things (or both) in the time since we last said “alleluia”. Since we have changed, the nature of our alleluias has changed as well. Our changes do not change God, but they may change what we know about God, how we experience the Divine, how much mystery we are able to accept, how much grace we are able to perceive. We come to celebrate the resurrection and the victory over death, having experienced more of both in the past seven weeks.

A changed understanding of God alters our praise. Thus, after changes in life, we do not have the same alleluias we had seven weeks ago. In seven weeks, we have had a death in the immediate congregation, several elders injured or hospitalized, the suicide of someone’s sibling, the end of life of someone’s father and someone else’s mother, the deaths of several friends, car accidents, and falls.

In seven weeks, we have seen more than one school shooting and an uprising of youth across the country demanding safety and change. We have watched the Austin bombings and we have seen at least on unarmed black man be killed by police in his own backyard while talking on his phone.

In the past seven weeks, China removed term limits so that the current president may remain in place for life. Russia held an “election” and Vladimir Putin remained in power. We learned that slavery is a read and present struggle in Libya.

In Anchorage, a truck hit a bridge and everyone thought more seriously about our one road situation. We have heard ads, seen ads, and been inundated with mailers for Tuesday’s election. We thought winter might be ending and then we had a lot more snow.

In the past seven weeks, this congregation talked about stewardship with Chris and Karla. We explored evangelism with Intern Pastor Kate. We read “faith without works is dead” five times over five Wednesdays. We talked about the “I am” statements that Jesus makes in the Fourth Gospel. We learned about the stages of faith.

 In seven weeks, we took communion eight times. We passed the peace six times. We made sandwiches twice and waved palms once.

Our alleluias are not, cannot be, what they were. And they are not what they may be in seven more weeks.

This week I had two profound spiritual experiences. The first was on Thursday when I was meditating on my reading for the day. As I read about Jesus being brought to trial in the courtyard of the high priest, I imagined myself in the scene. In my imagination, the large courtyard had a stone wall that I could see over and watch what was happening. I was with a large crowd of people who had also come to see what was happening.

As I watched the proceedings, I felt overwhelmed by the awareness that I couldn’t do anything for Jesus. In fact, I heard a voice tell me, “You can do nothing for Jesus here.” If I couldn’t do anything for him there, where could I do something for him? I felt compelled to look around me.

In the crowd, there were people who were stricken by what was happening, sad and afraid. There were those who were angry, not necessarily with Jesus, but they were itching to see anyone get “their due”. There were people on the edges of the crowd, technically unclean and not permitted to mix with the rest of the group. There were people who looked crestfallen, having hoped that something would be different.

“You can do something for Jesus here,” I heard. “Jesus is also out here.” At that moment, I was physically aware that I was having the same reaction to this spiritual experience in my body as I would have in a real crowd. I felt hypervigilant about the mix of energies, the potential threats, and the heightened awareness of so many people’s desires, hopes, and dreams. It felt like a time collapse, as though I could look at the crowd and then look back at Jesus in the courtyard, then look at the crowd and look forward again to a contemporary rally, protest, or contentious online debate.

And still, I heard, “Jesus is also out here.”

On Friday evening here, we read through the passion narrative from Mark. In order to change things up, I prepared the service such that the gathered congregation would read the words of Jesus with single or joint voices reading the other parts. When the voices gathered spoke as Jesus, the sound filled the space. It almost vibrated. I had never experienced Jesus’ words being spoken with so much depth and tone.

As the sound waves moved through me, I heard “Jesus is also out here.”

My alleluia isn’t what it was seven weeks ago. Through being part of this community, and my family, and my social groups, and a citizen of this city, state, and country, I have had experiences that have changed what I understand about God, how I think about stewardship, how I approach evangelism, what I ponder about faith.

I feel overcome by the direction of the Spirit to pay attention to “Jesus is also out here”.

Resurrection itself is not what causes us to praise God with alleluias. It is the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute work of the Holy Spirit that stirs, compels, and consoles us. It is the peace that passes our understanding. It is the quality of grace that shapes, molds, and leads us to die to our own need for control in all things.

Jesus is also out here. Resurrection truth is that Christ has promised to meet us in our own Galilee- where we live, where we move, where we have our being- and be present to us there. Trusting this, we find our alleluias transfigured, multiplied, shared, and held tenderly.

We raise them high. They are not what they were. They are not what they will be. But right here, right now, they are how we praise the God who has defeated death, has brought us this far, and who gives us hope for each tomorrow and the work it will contain.

Alleluia, alleluia. Christ is risen.
(He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

What about my friend? (Ask a Pastor)

Dear Pastor-
I like to go to church on Easter. I can't get there all the time, but Easter means something to me. I also have a beloved who isn't really churchy. I feel torn between spending time with my beloved on Easter morning or going to church. What should I do? 
A Few Times a Year is Better Than No Times.

Thank you for writing. I'm always glad to see you whenever you come. God sees you all the time. 
I appreciate your dilemma for Easter. I hear you saying that resurrection celebration is meaningful to you, but that the leisure time or the opportunity to start traditions with your beloved is also important. Both of those things are part of the Spirit's presence in your life. 
First, I encourage you to be true to yourself. Do not do something or make a choice, in the expectation that your beloved will reward the behavior or love you more. That kind of expectation isn't fair to anyone. 
If attending a service is important to you, own that reality. You are free to invite your beloved to join you, but your beloved is equally free to accept or decline the invitation without it being a reflection of how they truly feel about you. 
Neither of you is free to manipulate (overtly or covertly) the other with your emotions, coercion, or threats. 
If your beloved agrees, freely, to accompany you, know that you are not responsible for their experience. Other than giving some basic directions (hymnal use, stand/sit, where's the bathroom), their reaction to the service is not a reflection of their feelings about you. It may be about their own faith, doubts, experience, hope, or history. 
If your beloved declines to attend, accept their choice. Make a plan for what you would like to do together after you return from church. You will not be the only person in a service who loves someone who isn't there on Easter morning. That's okay. 
You can live a faithful and hopeful witness by doing what is important to you without resentment toward your beloved for their actions or resentment toward your faith for how it compels you. 
I hope to see you in one of our Easter services. If it turns out that resurrection joy is celebrated in your community through a breakfast you're hosting or a hike or something else, I hope to see you soon at a different service (Easter is a season). 
Pastor Julia

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday (3/30)

MARK 14:66-72 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Where have I denied Jesus? 

Have I dismissed cries for racial justice, arguing about bootstraps and the sweat of my own forebears? 

Have I yielded to the commercialization of life and the desecration of creation, sighing "That's just the way it is"? 

Have I hesitated to act because I was tired, frustrated, annoyed, or distracted? 

Have I acted, but without complete honesty, thereby painting a veneer of falsehood on the structure of a relationship, major or minor? 

Have I leaned hard on my own understanding and turned away from those whose life experience led them to different choices than my own? 

Have I been prideful about my finances, my abilities, my time, my physicality, my ideas, my belongings, or my religiosity? 

Have I closed myself to the stories of LGBTQ+ folk and the families, believing that marshes, dusk, and platypuses might not also have representation in the sexuality and identity spectrum? 

Have I taken in the news of the world and allowed myself to sink into despair, rather than praying for the strength to be God's witness in the place where I am? 

Have I gone through the motions, but called it living? 

Have I gone through the motions, but called it believing? 

Have I gone through the motions and stopped trusting that God is really present, active, and still speaking? 

When have I denied Jesus today? This hour? 

Oh, Peter, my brother! 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Holy Thursday (3/29)

MARK 14:43-65 Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; andhim there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled.
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire.
Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

When I read this section, I feel so much grief that I want to turn away from the text. I cannot change the story and I know what is coming, so instead, I would like to shut my eyes to it. It is the way to intellectual self-preservation, for me, to pull myself out of the story and just look at the details. If I stay with the "mind" questions- what's up with the naked guy, is that really blasphemy, why a kiss?- then I can pull away from the pain I feel in my body when I read this. 

When I say the pain I feel in my body, I don't mean like like daily aches and pains or the sharp acuteness of an injury. I mean, that as I read this story, my chest tightens, my eyes burn, and I feel an emotional wrenching that I would really prefer to stop. I don't like these sensations. If I escape "into my head", I am able to ignore the physical experience, but then I am not grappling with the whole body reality of this story. 

When I take a moment to engage the spiritual exercise of Jesuit Imaginative Prayer, I breathe myself into the story. I am so shocked at how many people are around me. I am surprised by how the feeling in the courtyard feels similar to the psychic energy in our own time of violence, power struggle, and helplessness within those watching who wish to act. I am overcome by the awareness that I cannot help Jesus. Simultaneously, I am washed with the knowledge that I can help someone else in the crowd. 

The story is around me, not just in front of me. Jesus' betrayal, trial, and desertion don't just affect him; they are having a powerful effect on others who are watching, who had hoped, whose breath is bated. 

Is this something that I do often- believe that I am watching Jesus, but failing to see where He is in the people around me? In the crowd, when I looked away from the spectacle, I saw people watching outside the courtyard. There were people who were excluded from society, deemed unclean. There were those who hoped for healing and those who just wanted be seen. There were those whose anger masked their hurt and those who were too hurt to care anymore. 

There was a time collapse for me in how similar the situation was to any crowd (in physical space or online) in contemporary life. 

Normally I would write my reflection questions here, but this spiritual exercise was very intense. Trying to write questions now would be putting an artificial stop to what I am feeling and thinking. I don't want to do that. I encourage you, in your own practice today, to pay attention to what arises within your body and your mind. Both parts matter because both parts make up who you are and the wholeness of you, whom God loves and has saved. 

God of peace, open 
My eyes to your beloved  
So that I might grow.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Holy Wednesday (3/28)

MARK 14:32-42: They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.  And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

When I reflect on this passage, I am deeply moved by Jesus' honesty. It's not like I expect the Savior to be a liar, but so often we don't speak the whole truth to one another or to God. We attempt to deceive ourselves (and others), knowing deeply that God knows the truth of us (and still loves us). 

Jesus pours out his fear and grief in this prayer. Does he know exactly what is coming or is he speculating, combining his dread with what he has seen in the years of religious leaders' oppression and Roman occupation? He does not attempt to reframe what he is feeling with quick platitudes about how it will turn out okay or work for the best or even that the Father has not given the Son more than he can handle. He is stricken, scared, and alone. 

His friends do not fully understand his thoughts and feelings, in part because they do not fully comprehend who Jesus is and what he is about. I am grateful, grateful for Jesus' own sake, that the disciples are too tired and stressed to stay awake. It means they're too tired to be like Job's unhelpful friends or to tell Jesus that he's exaggerating or even to turn the narrative about them and their feelings. 

This section narrows its focus on Jesus and his current reality- that a huge sacrifice is coming and that in a fully human body, with human emotions and human logic, it is going to hurt in many and various ways. Is there another way? Any other way? 

How many times have I been in a time of pain, a dark night of the soul, the valley of the shadow of death and wanted out? I have tried bargain with God, tried to reframe and accept, attempted to stuff my feelings. It is the rare occasion that I have said, "Not what I want, but what You want." 

I confess that I have even, on occasion, told God what God wants. I have taken scripture in hand and said, "You have said THIS, now I claim it for my brother, my sister, my son, my husband, my parishioner, my home, my finances,..." That's not exactly submitting to God's will. 

Do I have it in me to imitate Christ in one of his most human moments? Can I be honest about what I feel with the God who already knows it? Can I yield to the mystery of Divine Will, trusting in the plan and future and keeping my eyes open for the forces that oppose God? Do I actually want the holy concession of having my spirit and flesh in alignment with the Spirit and the Word? 

Holy God, help me to be honest with you in my prayers. You wait patiently for me to stop my attempts at control. My heart is restless until it comes to a holy quiet in your peace. Amen.