Rooted and Grounded, Paul’s Love Poem

Sun-Sky-Quote-Picture

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I had to take this scripture into myself this weekend. To let it work on me, to feel the poetry of it. The kneeling, the bowing, the praying, the astonished heart of one who has been overcome by the fullness of God, of God’s love. This text reads like a love poem to the Damascus road experience. The astonishing moment where a bright light shines lovingly on all the dark and hidden corners of one’s soul and changes everything. This river of grace and love which flowed through Saul the persecutor changing him, altering him forever; breaking open his heart, enlightening his eyes, drawing forth love and compassion from one who was, who had been a persecutor.

And then he is no longer that, but something new. Love paints all things with a new light and his life is transformed. One might wonder if Paul ever regretted it, this move from wealthy pharisee with political power and prestige to hunted revolutionary speaking and preaching the gospel of Jesus to a hurting and lost world. But if we wonder then perhaps we have missed the love poem written in this text. So many years after the Damascus road incident, so many years and experiences later, Paul writes:

Kneeling before the Father,
The archetypal father from whom all fathers
On earth or in heaven (perhaps even the third heaven but who can say? In the body or out.)
Take their name

And I

I only a simple child
Moved by the love of the Father
Moved by the love which,
Is beyond my knowledge

Yet

Somehow I feel
A new experience
An abundance of glory
(can you not feel it? )
This then
Is the love of the Father

A love which has no height
No depth
No width nor circumference
With which to contain it.

(can you not feel it?)

An abundance of glory, an earth shattering, life changing, unexplainable fullness of God. All these years after Damascus and he’s still in love with God. Paul is given to some rebukes in his writing; he is given to some self promotion, but mostly, he is given to love and surrender for the sake of the gospel. And Paul knows that this is not an easy love, it is not a comfortable love but one which will change you, which will shake up your life and take you to places you cannot at this time imagine. Even as he prays that we too might have the experience of God’s love he also prays,

But be strengthened
Be rooted and grounded
In love
Because you’re going to need it
Because this love,
It will change everything and change is hard
Even when it’s good.

(Love lives in your heart now, can you feel it?)

Be strengthened
In your inmost being
In the depths of the dark inside places
Of your soul.
Be strengthened
Because hope grows.
A new light
A new potential
Future possibilities expand
And
Love says yes
Be strengthened
Because your heart
Just might break open
To wondrous new possibilities
And you may find yourself
Opening up to impossible people
And impossible situations
Which are quite possible now

(how cool is this? But do you dare believe it?)

Paul who had been Saul, who had been replete with all the signs of success that one might hope for in his day, must have spent a lot of time shaking his head, wondering how he came to be in the places he ended up. How did this upright pharisee end up running from the law, hanging precariously in a basket as it was lowered down the city walls. How did he end up shipwrecked on an island. How did he end up in prison? He must have been shaking his head in wonder at times, because no matter how bad it got, it was better than anything he had ever known. It was a fullness of God’s presence, of God’s love, of God’s Spirit that he could not put into words. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ which he could not contain, could not encapsulate such that he could somehow convey it.

It was beyond the height, the depth, the width or length, of anything he could hold up and show. It was uncontainable, this love which flowed through his veins and remade him, which rebirthed him, a whole new creation.

Paul threw it all away. All of his privilege and his influence, his respectable position in society. All gone. He was no catepillar refusing to become a butterfly, creeping around on all those legs, staying safe and remaining in all that he knew. He threw it all away, entered the chaos of the chrysalis and was reborn, remade, because this uncontainable, unknowable love shattered every preconception and expectation that he had. And in this love poem that is our Ephesians text he prays the same for us. “In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.”

In the abundance of his glory, that unrestrained, indomitable, life-changing, life-altering glory, which no person can witness and not be changed by-

Be Changed! Grow firm and strong, be brave, so very brave, because this will change everything; it will take you to new places and new roles, new positions in society, it will change everything!

This is no prosperity gospel! This is not a promise that if you believe God will give you everything you ever wanted, but rather that God will fill you with good thing you’ve never even considered, never imagined, never even knew you needed. You may find yourself dangling from the city walls in a basket, on the run from the police because you fed the homeless, because you protested the violence, because you stood with those who suffer and demanded justice. You may find yourself walking away from a life of prestige and privilege and yet feeling somehow deeply fulfilled and not lacking anything at all.

But it is an act of bravery, an act of trust to open one’s heart so fully to Jesus. To surrender so deeply and let God remake you. Because, if you are like me, then you know what it is to say, ‘I have plans. I know where I’m going and I know what I want to achieve, so the sooner God gets on board with my plans, the better we will get along.” It’s an act of bravery to let go of our expectations, our hopes and dreams and let God bring something new and unknown into our hearts.

I wonder if you will try something with me. Hold your hands out and clench your fist tight. White knuckle it for a moment. All that God longs to give you, the goodness and abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, is not something that God will force upon us. Go ahead and release your fists, turn your hands over, palms up, feel the openness, the release, the surrender of an outstretched hand, an open palm.

When Saul was riding down that Damascus road he was holding tightly to all he knew. He was a white knuckle pharisee, trying his very best to do every right and correct thing. He was in control, till God knocked him for a loop, unseated him, and offered him an opportunity for growth. Paul, courageously opened his heart, released his grip, and surrendered. God does not pry our hands loose but offers us opportunity, after opportunity. The pain of a tight-fisted grip on life is unnecessary and therefore sad and painful. God asks only that we will release our grip on our preconceptions, our plans, our insistence on safety and being right, and let God fill our surrendered, up-turned palms with good things!

God longs to fill our lives with good things, with a rich, full, abundant life. Jesus looking down over Jerusalem, that city which kills its prophets, where he would meet his own death, was filled with compassion. “If I could,” he said, “I would take you all under my wing, like a mother hen.” If you will let me, I will love you, I will care for you. What more do we really want, than to know we are loved, we are accepted, we belong?

Glory be to him who, working within us, can do infinitely more, than we can ask or imagine. Infinitely more, and yet we struggle to allow this, to let go of our plans, but Paul says, let go, let God work within you. It will be more and greater than anything you could ever imagine! It will bring you to places you never thought you would be, you never thought possible! Infinitely more. Just let that sink in. God will do infinitely more than you can imagine.

But be filled with the fullness of God, that incomprehensible, life-changing, life-altering love and then watch what happens!
God who is at work within us,
will not abandon us,
will walk with us as we go,
leading us, bringing us to a new land,
a new way of being.

This new way of being that is not rooted in fear and self protection, but is rooted and grounded in love. It is not rooted in white knuckle sobriety or propriety, but in deep surrender, faith, and trust in the One who loves us. This new way of being that insists we be rooted and grounded in love, that we act with love, that we open ourselves up to love, that we release our fear-based grip and allow God to fill our lives with good things.

Paul, in his deep-rooted love, in the rich abundance that has flowed into his heart and soul, changing him, taking him to unimaginable places, opens his heart with deep compassion for the church, for that beleaguered, struggling community and he prays:

Kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven or on earth takes its name: in the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner selves, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.

Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever amen

This prayer, this love poem, it is our prayer, is our love poem to God, to one another. May we be rooted and grounded in love, may we speak with love, may we act with love, and may we be strengthened in our inner selves, may we have the courage to release our tight-fisted, fear based grip and allow God’s grace and love to flow through our veins, remaking us, re-birthing us, making us a new creation, that God might look down upon us and say, “I’ve got kin in that body.” May God who can do infinitely more than we can ever imagine forgive our fear and continue to work within us, remaking us, reforming us into the body of Christ.

Amen

Secretly, in the dark.

seed paper towel

It’s science class in the third grade, and your teacher hands out these tiny little seeds. She tells you that we are going to grow these seeds in a wet fold of paper towel so we can watch the mysterious actions of a seed opening up and growing. The whole class gets busy wetting and folding their paper towels embedding the seed, usually a bean sprout of some kind, into the folds and slipping them into a glass jar. Over the next few weeks we all watch anxiously. Class only gets started when the teacher is able to pull us away from the window where we go every morning to see if this is the day our seed will open and send it’s roots down, it’s stem up. Some of us are less than careful and our paper towels dry up, the seed dies. Others are too anxious and water over and over and the seed is soaked. Those who strike that happy medium are rewarded when their seed starts to open and a slender white root probes the paper towel looking for dirt and ground. The whole class wants to see and we all crowd around the lucky first one. The mysteries of the earth are exposed, laid bare before us as we stare in amazement. We wonder how it knew to open, how it knew which side was up and which was down. Even as we see what was formerly hidden in the dark of the earth more mysteries beckon.

 

The kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus says, from the smallest of beginnings, in the dark of the earth, in the unseen places, it will grow and become a tree! It’s hyperbole, an extravagant and untrue statement. It forces us outside our prior understanding by suggesting something we know can’t be true. Mustard seeds don’t become trees! Acorns become mighty oaks but mustard seeds? They stay pretty small, just your average bush, really. Reason insists that we know our limitations just as the mustard seed isn’t a tree, we know we too have limitations. We are a small church in the middle of a small, mostly rural area. We have our limitations. We are an aging group with declining numbers, we know our limitations. Don’t we?

 

But, Jesus says, in the depths of the soil, in the dark and unseen places, something is happening. The seed is nourished by faith and lovingly tended. Something in it breaks. That resistance and desire to stay safe in its hard shell, the shell that promised it would stay intact until just the right moment, gives in, shatters, is broken open and growth begins. Hafiz, the 15th century Sufi poet wondered,

 

“How did the rose ever open its heart and give to the world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise we all remain too frightened.”

 

Anais Nin might have been responding when she wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

 

It’s easier to see the rose bloom than the seed sprout. The rose is out in the open, warming in the sun. We can watch its petals slowly spread out. The seed, however is hidden, in the depth of the soil and the dark, wet of the earth. Weeks can go by without any visible sign of change, of growth. Before we grew our seeds in wet paper towels we grew grass seeds in a dixie cup filled with dirt. Do you remember that? I suspect that my third grade teacher knew how often we had looked at that bare dirt and failed to believe anything could possibly be growing in there. it’s so hard to believe that change is happening when you can’t see it. As a child I wanted to dig in and see what was happening underneath all that dirt and I didn’t trust that things really were happening. I needed to see it. At the gym where I work out there is a poster in the bathroom, in that most private of places where a woman might look at herself in the mirror and get discouraged because all that hard work and dieting isn’t making the difference she’d hoped for. It says, “When you get discouraged, imagine yourself a year from now, and get back to work.” It’s part of our nature, I guess, that we want to see our hard work and our brave risks produce change now, visibly, let me see it happening! But the process begins within the dark and unseen places.

 

Jesus says the kingdom is like a, that is one, mustard seed, that a man took out into the field and planted. Imagine going out into the field and planting that one singular mustard seed. It’s such an insignificant thing. To plant that one seed. Here we are hungering to see change happening, to see our efforts manifesting, and he says it’s like planting one, tiny, insignificant seed in a field. And then things happen, somewhere in the dark soil this seed opens and grows and becomes, more than we ever could have expected, not a bush but a tree! The smallest thing, perhaps some passing kindness, a smile, a thank you, a gracious welcome, a bit of attention, planted faithfully grows into something incredible, grows into the kingdom! We struggle with the desire to see things happen but silently in all the dark quiet places, what we have planted grows and becomes! Under the surface and out of sight change begins and growth happens!

 

The patience and the hard work, the risks taken, which at the time don’t seem to produce anything, work within us and change us, help us to grow and become the people we most deeply desire to be. Anne Frank, locked up in her attic space, could never have known or imagined how many people her words would touch, what an inspiration she would become in her refusal to hate, in her insistence that love will win and that there is good in humanity. But perhaps she has some inkling of what it might be. She wrote,

 

“Everyone has inside them a piece of good news. The good news is you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

 

Simple words planted on a sheet of paper left in a cold and bare attic where trauma occurred. Simple words which stir the heart and break open the brittle shell of resistance. We do have a piece of good news. We are good news. We are the seed planted out in the field and we do not know what we might become; we do not know what we can accomplish; we do not know what our potential is! We have only to break through our resistance and stretch our roots down into the soil, that good rich ground that is the Word of God, that is our source and our sustenance and grow!

 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” But this letting go, this release of certainty, this cracking of our defensive, protective shell, it’s really hard to do! And when we do, we want promises! Ezekiel 17 speaks to the captives, those who have been stripped of all power and privilege and taken hostage in Babylon, taken hostage to insure the compliance of the rest of Israel. Moments after Ezekiel warns the Israelites not to seek the protection of the even more powerful and just as likely to plunder Egyptians in order to overthrow the Babylonians, he promises them that God will pluck out a fine shoot from their branches and establish it on a high and lofty mountain, and it will put out branches and bear fruit. From the depths of exile and the fate of a hostage, this small cutting, this soon to be grafted on branch will grow to become fruit and refuge to every bird of the air. But the Israelites don’t see this happening. They only see themselves stuck in an abusive hostage situation and maybe, just maybe, the Egyptians would help them out. Maybe they could force the situation and free themselves. Maybe they could take control and make things turn out the way they want it to. Or, Ezekiel says, they could wait for God to act. Or, Ezekiel says, they could have patience with the process of change that is going on under the surface, unseen, in the hidden and dark places, the inaccessible places. Oh but how they wanted to make things happen right now! And don’t we all? It’s so hard to be patient with these slow, internal processes, to trust that things really are happening and growth and change are occurring.

 

We are planted like a tiny seed in a vast field. We begin our growth and our transformation in the dark of the soil, rooted and grounded in God’s Word. We begin our growth in the darkness and in the unseen internal spaces. How often do we want to pluck that seed out of the soil and look at it, just to see if it’s really doing something? How often are we tempted to “push the river” and try to make it go faster? How often do we look towards the powerful and mighty around us and seek to be like them, to emulate them, to adopt their DNA instead of allowing our own to grow and manifest God’s glory just as God intended. Instead we look at those around us and we wish we could be like them. But we are still that small seed. That unseen seed planted in a large and vast field. In our own way and in our own time, God will use us. We will, and are, moving from the isolated self-protected state of a seed to the expansive, spreading, branched out state of a tree, sheltering all manner of life. Isn’t that amazing? The world would tell us to maintain our hard-shell of protection, to care for ourselves and our needs, but God says, no, break open and grow, break open and search for me. It’s a risk, and as Anais Nin acknowledged, it’s something we tend to do only when the pain of staying closed in on ourselves gets to be just too much.

sunrise

Can we trust that if we do allow ourselves to break open, to stretch deep inside and deep down into the darkness that we will find sustenance, that we will be nurtured, and that all of this can and will go on for some time, perhaps a long time, before the first shoots of new growth begin to show above the surface? Can we be faithful as we wait for these shoots to show up, to continue watering our little seed and resist the urge to unearth it and check to see if it’s really doing something? Can we have faith that growth and bearing fruit is part of our DNA even when we don’t know where or when that growth may occur? We know what we are, and it is tempting to hold onto that with a tight, white-knuckle grip, but we do now know what we might be, or how God will use us. Learning this requires release, it requires surrender, it requires allowing the process to continue, even when we don’t see signs of success or immediate relief from our anxiety. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed planted in a vast field, and the church is a foretaste of that kingdom. Today we are the mustard seed, planted in the heart of the piney woods in southeast Texas. We grow unseen and undisturbed at first, we grow simply and without concern as God is our gardener, our pruner, our sustenance and our joy. We stretch our roots deep into the soil of the Word and are fed and sustained. We stretch our hearts and our hands to the love of God which warms us and fills us with all manner of good things. We know that it may be a while before new shoots begin to surface, but we are content. We are, after all, just a seed, small and simple, planted in a vast field.

 

 

 

 

 

A resurrection of our spirits and our hope

Etty_Hillesum2

Etty Hillesum

 

It matters because the tomb is empty. This Easter uprising. There are different versions of the story in our scriptures. We have these different versions because it is not meant to be taken literally as if we could go back and video tape it. Something would be lost if we could. The resurrection will not be filmed. It will not be captured or made to fit in tidy boxes. It is something else, outside our paradigms, outside our understanding. It is new life, new hope, new possibilities, and so much more. It is the greening of the springtime and a remembrance that this too will end. It is the eternal call to life, to come out of the tombs, the shadows, the depressions, the lostness, the pain, the grief, come out and live again!

 

It is more than the knowledge that we are never alone. That Jesus has come into all depths, all darkness. That Jesus has gone up the chimneys, down into the mines, into the gas chamber, so that we might make it out. Making it out, simply surviving, is not enough. Such an answer is too small, too simple. We are called to so much more than simply survival. Survival is a task for those who live with pain, loss, degradation, poverty. Resurrection speaks a new word into our survival minds. It is a new way of being that goes way beyond simply surviving to thriving.

 

Being about God’s work is to be about bringing life where there is death, joy where there is sorrow, repair where there is injury, hope where there is despair, it is about bringing resurrection.

 

Resurrection happens. It’s that moment when your heart begins to heal from a massive rejection or loss and you begin to look at the future with hope instead of looking at the past with regret. It’s that moment when familiar patterns of abuse begin to show up in a new relationship and just when you’re tempted to say, “I guess it will always be this way,” something inside you begins to whisper, then shout, then demand, “NO” and things change. It is that moment when lost inside the darkness of depression, when some internal pain has riveted you, has fixed you permanently within its grasp, and some light begins to break in, finds a crack in the hardness, the seemingly impermeable shell, offering a slender chance and something in you grabs hold of it.

 

Our desire for death, for the finality of it, the letting go and the promise that you don’t need to feel anything anymore, is a reality recognized in some psychological theories. Something in us looks back and back and back like Lot’s wife, not wanting to move on, dissolving in despair and loss, weeping inconsolably, and turning bitter. There is a refusal to look to the future, to let go of what was and hope again. But I don’t want to be harsh with Lot’s wife. I suspect that her weeping and her bitterness came from a deep love of her home town, of the people, perhaps her gardens, her home, her friends. If her hometown had been inhospitable to strangers it had still been her home, her town, where she belonged and lived. It was hard to move on. It was hard to let go, to let the past die and keep on living.

 

It was hard for the disciples to witness the death of Jesus. Some couldn’t bear to watch and left. The crushing pain of irredeemable loss was hard to bear. It took time for the disciples to realize that Christ was still with them. That although he had surrendered to the laws of physical reality there was something deeper going on. They began to recognize that in a very real way, nothing could separate them from him, or him from them. That he had become a part of them, that he was and would always be with them, that not even death could come between them.

 

When we reduce the event of Easter to some mythic, magical event, dead man walking, we relieve ourselves of the need to be resurrection people. We turn the responsibility for healing, for loving, for transforming our lives over to God and then we wait for the magic. God asks us to be resurrection people, not passive recipients but to actually be the healing and loving and transforming in the world. We are not to wait passively for some magical event to come, but to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. The belief in a literal magic events leaves us waiting powerlessly, the belief in a poetic miraculous narrative invites us to participate, to be part of the process and to be changed by the process, not passive recipients but participants.

 

This month I have been reading, The Half Has Never Been Told, a story about the formation of the US on the backs and bodies of black men and women. My heart broke and continues to break as I read the vivid descriptions of the death and despair visited on all those people, as I read how they would sing themselves back to life, dare to hope again and again, dare to see themselves as so much more than what their abusers told them they were. That they were truly beloved children of God, holy and sacred people, cherished and loved.

 

It’s the image of men and women picking cotton under brutal conditions but nonetheless singing gently, over and over again, to a young girl, a new arrival in the cotton fields, who’s despair at having been sold away from her family, at being brutalized and having no hope of rescue, threatened to drown her under the hot sun. She was more dead than alive. Yet they sing to her, gently, persistently, calling her to come out of the tomb, day after day, until she too sings, a corpse pulled back to life. “Where are you Liza Jane?” they sang, “come back to us, come home Liza Jane.”

 

This is resurrection. This is new life. The first strangled bits of song to pass her lips, new life, hope, an inescapable freedom, being born again under the unseeing eye of the overseer. And it does not matter if this worldly power shows up as overseer, Roman centurion, ISIS, or SS guard, it is a power that breaks one. It is power over others and it is a power that does not see or recognize the subversive power of love, of Christ and resurrection.

 

Resurrection is not power over but that gentle, persistent thread of hope that refuses to give in to despair. This is not the walking dead resurrection, an insistence that the body still move and act, but a life fully lived, accepting the fullness of mortality and yes this means saying yes to death also. How many of us live a life half there? How many pull back in fear, in despair, in shock, at the horrors of life? Unwilling to say yes, this too, to all that comes, to all that might be, with a life fully lived.

 

Last week Humans of New York, a facebook page that in a truly gracious manner sees and recognizes all the incredible people of New York, featured a man who, after the death of his wife during childbirth, became stuck in the horror and fear that he would lose his daughter too. “I was unable to really be with her,” he said. “Every moment of my time with her I was afraid, afraid that I would lose her too and I missed a lot of moments that way.” That is, until he experienced a resurrection himself, till he moved past fear recognizing that his loss, his fear were keeping him from actually being with his daughter and he began to say “yes this too,” to the whole realm of possibility. Yes I may lose my daughter but right here, right now, I will be with her, and I will not allow my fear and my loss to stop that. Resurrection happens. It comes. We are a resurrection people.

 

If forgiveness releases us from the sting of the past, then resurrection releases us from the sting of the present, the fear of the future. We are released from the destructive power of pain and loss, of degradation and poverty, of isolation and anonymity. If forgiveness releases us from the evils we have done, resurrection releases us from the evils visited upon us through no fault of our own. We are given new hope, new life, that we might be able to continue, to live again. Resurrection looks to the future, to who we might be, to who we are called to be.

 

It is in recognition that some losses are too great to be compensated for that we turn to resurrection. There is no compensation that will make good some losses, only resurrection, only salvation can redeem these losses. God has promised to wipe every tear and we, as resurrection people, hold God to this promise, that all such loss will be redeemed, not compensated for, but redeemed, made good. This is the glory of resurrection, this is what it means to return to life, to live again, to be freed, not only from all that you have done, but from all that has happened to you.

 

Resurrection might also be a trembling, initial attempt to live again. Like Etty Hillesum singing on the train as it bore her to Auschwitz, knowing what was waiting at the end of the line. Surely there must have been tears along with the song. In opposition to all the powers of the world that told her she, and those like her, were nothing, she sang. Surely there must have been trembling now and then, but still Etty sang, still Etty dropped that last notecard from the train car as it pulled out, “We left singing” she wrote. Resurrection happens. But I suspect that it is not always the same. It is not always that bright burst of new life but sometimes a trembling, weak kneed step towards new life. It the insistence on being fully alive even through death and loss.

 

As resurrection people we are not asked to pay in religious dues through our prayers and attendance at church, in hopes of an afterlife reward but to live our lives fully right here, right now, allowing God to bring us back to life, right here, right now! To live as if all that we are and do matters, to live as if death, loss, and pain do not have the last word, because when we live as if it does, then our lives become small and timid, and we are not meant to be small and timid.

 

As a resurrection people we are asked to live fully by taking up our cross, by saying “Yes, this too,” to all the suffering, loss and pain, by singing to the lost souls, “Liza Jane, where are you?” by throwing those bold notes out the sides of the cargo car. We are most fully alive when we live for others, when we love greatly and without fear. When we love until it heals and we don’t stop until it does. We may step toward life with trembling and weak knees but we are called like Lazarus from the tomb to step forward, live more fully, be more alive, do not be afraid, do not withhold your heart. This is resurrection! To be called back to life when hope is impossible! To live anyway, to sing like Liza Jane in the fields or Etty in the cattle car. This is resurrection! To throw off the chains of trauma and pain and loss and live with joy in one’s heart anyway! In the midst of the world with all its difficulties and need, love and live fully, anyway, that we might be true children of the resurrection!

 

We are a resurrection people! Not the small and timid living in fear of loss and trauma but the radical, wild, unpredictable people of God! No wonder the powers of the world fear us. Those who are not afraid, who are known by their joy and their love, love which is not afraid!

 

This is the resurrection of our spirits and our hope. Easter invites us to let go of our fear and celebrate a love stronger than hate, a hope stronger than despair, a light stronger than darkness, a goodness stronger than evil.

 

 

 

 

 

Desert Wanderings

Harry Randall Truman was a faithful and devoted man. He was the caretaker of a mountain lodge near Spirit lake and he loved, he truly loved the wilderness. The mountain with its depth and mystery, the lake with a cold, damp fog rising off of it in the early mornings. I imagine Harry in his devotion, his heart swelling and over-flowing with love, standing on the deck of the lodge in the early morning, coffee cup in hand, drinking in the almost silence, that golden silence when the world speaks as one with God before our busy schedules and to-do lists take over. I never met Harry, so I can only imagine, but I imagine Harry as one of those many people from the Pacific Northwest who proudly proclaim, the mountain is my temple, the forest is my sanctuary, I meet God there. I have no need for steeples or organ music, I have tall pine trees and birdsong.

spirit lake

When the call came to leave the mountain, Harry refused. “My mountain won’t hurt me,” he proclaimed and as he witnessed to his deep faith and love of the wild lands, the forests, his beloved mountain, people were inspired. He received marriage proposals in the mail. People took heart listening to him and they too refused to leave the mountain, at least until the evidence was more certain.

Harry said the mountain would take care of him and I suppose in a way it did. When Mount St. Helens erupted it folded it’s hot, molten lava around Harry and his cats and it held him eternally. He did not have to witness the devastation of his forests, of his lake, of his mountain; he was spared that. There is a certain grace and certainly there is fidelity in Harry’s story.

There is also a refusal. A refusal to enter into exile and endure the desert times, the I feel so lost times, the time of loss and grief. I can’t imagine Harry’s situation. But I do know that in some ways it is our situation. Most of us were raised in a certain church, a certain way of being church.

I have the fondest memories of Wednesday night potlucks and to me a church isn’t home unless I can enter the sacred places alone and walk through them as if I’m home. This naming and claiming for me as a child involved signing up to clean sections of the church and joyfully doing so every week, this quarter we have the kitchen and the narthex, next one we have the bathrooms and the adult Sunday school room, and so it would go. It was ours. We were home.

It involved sitting vigil at the foot of the cross from Good Friday service until Easter morning when the pastor arrived to do the Easter service- we would sign up for 15 minute increments and in complete silence we would enter and relieve those who had come before us and we committed to never leaving that cross alone in the horror of death until resurrection came. My mother loved to sign up for the middle of the night sessions so this vigil often began with her waking us at one or two in the morning and driving through the cold to church. All of this is viscerally encoded in my being.

This is how I know my church…except that, it changed. My church became the one where I was greeted with a hug and a soulful, “I see you” gaze. My church became the one where, and I know this is different, we did prayer stations and at a designated time during the service I could move from one prayer station to another, physically praying as I lay my body down on pillows, artfully praying as I painted a “graffiti wall” with my earnest prayer, or simply lighting a candle, and then, most significantly for me, receiving communion by name. I was known here, I was claimed here. As I moved through the service I would receive small pats on my shoulder, a brief smile here and there. Somehow I was known and loved and accepted and I felt it viscerally.

My church was also a small church where my service began in the early hours of Saturday morning as my fellow seminarians slept in and I, I was off to buy groceries. Though, no, to be honest my worship and expressing my love for this congregation began earlier in the week, often on pinterest an internet site with lots of delicious recipes that I would peruse, trying to find and create the perfect menu. And after coffee I would run to the store, shop for wonderful, fresh goodness and spend the day in the basement of the church, again alone, working, cleaning, cooking, feeling myself at home in deep visceral ways, in the way of thanksgiving smells, and canning or jamming sessions with extended family, home is where the kitchen is, and with my radio on full blast I would dance and sing and cook, so that I might present a full meal to all these wonderful, loving, gracious people who took me in when no one else would.

My church became the message that you are welcome here; all your tears and anger and frustration, all of you, all that you are and all that you experience yourself to be, are welcome here. I’m paraphrasing, because to be honest this message was one I received in pieces, a little here, a little there. But again, I knew I had found my church. The final piece of the message, you have worth and value, you have something to contribute, and by the way, God sees you, God loves you. Huh, nothing more. No earn it. No if you do this…God will love you. No, if you do this…I will accept you. No if you are this you can be part of our community. No. No. Isn’t that something? You! Sitting there. You! Are loved! That final piece, once I was ready to let it in, to receive it, it made the whole world church!

So about now you might be wondering what all this has to do with Harry Randal Truman and his love of his mountain. Right about now I can imagine Harry twirling in his grave saying, how can you conflate my love for my mountain with church?! But I am sure that he would admit that standing on his deck in the morning, watching the mist rise off the lake, feeling and hearing the Spirit of God pulsing through the wilderness, singing with the birds, that this was church for him.

And I understand his refusal to leave church as he understood it, even if it meant death. Because I refused to leave church until it meant death, the death of who I was as a fully aware and adult woman, until it meant that I must become small and diminished. But I know something that Harry never had the chance to discover, that church comes in many and different forms. Some of them feel odd and different and off-setting, especially at first, but all of them are wonderous and grace inspired and beautiful. And Harry was not able to receive this.

My sister-in-law and my brother live on the Oregon coast and every week my sister-in-law posts pictures she has taken of the Oregon coast on facebook and it is devotional. I know, some of you are thinking, “how can anything on facebook be devotional” but it is. Her pictures speak of a deep love, a willingness to stand in awe and wonder, of a willingness to accept grace and love without explanaition. “Why are you doing this for me?” and no answer comes, and we wonder openly about the love or perhaps the silence, but we accept the gift. We accept it in wonder and awe!

So what is church anyway? Is it the grand and vibrant mountain, holy mountain, on which my ancestors worshipped? Is it the edifice of a cross that must be accompanied, that invites us into the death of Jesus Christ? Is it the kitchens and bible study rooms that must be cleaned and thus owned? Is it the liturgies that invite us into personal and public prayer? And when all around us are saying, in large and quiet voices, this will end, do we have the courage and the faith to believe that the church can and will exist in lots and lots of different and unexpected forms?

I wonder sometimes, if Harry had left his beloved mountain, his humble mountain, would he have learned to worship the grand and incredible mystery that is God on the beach as my sister-in-law does? I wonder if he would have named it and claimed it, saying here, today, I worship and adore, straight up adoration, the mystery that is God manifested yesterday in Mount St. Helens but today in Castle Rock, tomorrow who knows?

We have this resurrection faith. This faith that God will come even through, perhaps especially through, death. We die to what we know, the ways in which we have always experienced God, believing that God will become present to us in new and different ways, in unexpected ways. We die to what we know, perhaps because we need so desperately to believe, to know, that God will be present to us even when we have let go of all that is certain.

And in doing so we enter the desert. Halle, hallejuha, we enter the desert. Imagine Jesus, that human side of him, being so blessed at the river that the heavens split open and God said, I am so very, very proud of you. I don’t know about you, but if the heaven’s split at the river, in the midst of baptism. I would be dunking under that river over and over trying to hear it again. But Jesus leaves.

Harry could not leave the place where he experienced the divine. H would not be driven out to the desert, but Jesus, he leaves.

We stand at just such a cusp. There are so many, many memories of God-filled, God-inspired moments here. We have so many memories of worship being a certain way and like Harry our love of what we know, the ways in which we have experienced God, call to us. And we want to remain faithful to that just as he did. And like Harry we know that this cannot last. We feel the trembling of the mountain, the dissolving of finances, the empty pews. We know we cannot stay but like Harry we want to stay and continue to feel the blessed and gracious presence of God in the ways which we are familiar with.

Following Jesus out into the desert isn’t easy. Walking into the silence and the loneliness, encountering our darkest side, encountering our mortality is frightening. Jesus received this incredible blessing, sky splitting open, God speaking directly to him, and in response he leaves. In response he opens himself up to the mystery and the uncertainty. In response he walks into the darkness, into the desolation and he experiences temptation. It is a walk of faith, to walk into the darkness.

We are entering Lent, a time when we are invited to die with Christ and learn that we truly have a resurrection faith, that dying we live. We are invited into our greatest fears that we might learn that God is there too.

As we stand together on the edge of the desert, as we face our mortality we have a decision to make, to enter the unknown and let go of certainty or to die where we stand, remaining faithful to what we already know. I believe that Harry was not alone when the mountain erupted, that God was with him even then, loving him, protecting him, caring for him. I do not believe that if we decide not to embrace change that God will abandon us or be disappointed in us, but I do believe that this church will not survive it; we cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect to get different results. This is a valid choice but it is not the only one.

We can choose to follow Jesus into the desert, into the unknown, embrace change and let the Spirit transform us. We can open our hearts and souls up to the incredible process of transformation and say, yes this too. We can walk into the darkness, encounter our mortality, grief, and loss knowing that we do not walk alone, that God is holding our hand as we go.

We stand on the cusp decision just as Harry must have as he watched his neighbors pack up and leave.

Please pray with me, Most holy and gracious God, teach us not to judge one another as we struggle to know what the right thing is. Teach us to be kind and to respect the decisions that we each must face. Teach us to seek You always knowing that whether we can face the desert and transformation or whether we stay resolutely where we have experienced You once before that You are with us. Amen

Revisiting the Past

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Have you ever re-visited a place of trauma? This morning I returned to a place where I was pushed, unintentionally I hope, to the very brink, to a place where I had to constantly remind myself that life was worth living and I wasn’t a horrible, toxic, inherently unlikeable person. It was a place which had been overwhelming to me, a place where I felt powerless.

 

If you’ve ever done this, returned to such a place, you know the heart squeezing panic that sets in. You know how every cell of your body screams “Run!” as you intentionally walk forward.  You know how just being there can be an act of courage even if all the people who hurt you are long gone. If you’ve done this you know the dissonance of entering a place where life wasn’t safe and knowing that today it is.

 

Remember Sarah from the movie Labyrinth? “Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great…You have no power over me.” Her’s was a hero’s journey as is the journey of everyone who overcomes a painful past. Learning to say, “you have no power over me,” and really believing it, knowing it inside of yourself, is a journey. It seems to me that often the child that is stolen is a piece of ourselves. It is hope. It is joy. It is wonder. Reclaiming that, from whatever has stolen it, is always worth the journey. 

 

I went back today, just briefly, and I walked through the doors of a place that had brought incredible pain into my life. I didn’t cry. I started to, but then I felt everything shift as I saw the place from a new perspective. I realized how much smaller it was than I remembered. I saw all the flaws, the disarray, the clutter. I realized that everything had changed because I had changed.  I realized that I was stronger and more capable than I had thought possible. 

 

I know that today I am the only one who holds on to these memories. Others have moved on. Even as I hear the Monty Python chorus yelling, “Get on with it!” in my head, I know I still have a little healing to do. I still feel a nauseating adrenaline rush just being there. I still feel vulnerable. I still get scared and I know I have to face my fears, to lean into them and see what they have to teach me. I know that I still need to say the words aloud, “I am a daughter of the King, a beloved child of God, and you have no power over me.” I didn’t say these words today though. Today I just got out of there as fast as I could. Plenty of time for heroics another day.