Monday Morning Meditation, 29 October 2012 – A Mountaintop

•October 29, 2012 • 3 Comments

Rumor has it that when you climb to the top of mountain, you have a vantage point of beauty for miles around. This is why some crazy people – and I mean that lovingly – like to climb.

It’s not just rumor, though. I’ve been to the top of a couple of mountains. Grumpily. Stubbornly. Negatively. I am no hiker. I don’t like to work that hard when it comes to walking around in beautiful woods and hills in God’s good creation.

I wish I could remember the name of the mountain in the Adirondacks. I did not enjoy that climb at all, but Mom and Dad made me and there was the peer pressure of my siblings with my youngest, Len, just bounding up. But oh, my. When we got to the top even my bad mood was worth it (to me, but probably not to my family). The view was stunning. Rolling hills with lakes and streams running around them, with mountains rising up here and there. Gorgeous.

Another mountain I got to the top of – almost the top – has become the stuff of family legend. Only it’s true legend. My visit to my brother who was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador overlapped with my parents’ visit. We were in the Andes. These are serious mountains. Snow-covered, altitude-sickness-inducing, windy mountains. With crosses along the paths where people had died. I have never been known for my zest for such outdoor endeavors, and my willingness to put aside my negative mood was no where to be found. So I say to my brother and parents, “What’s the point?” Seriously, what was the point of getting up this mountain, Chimbarazo? A volcano, by the way. Not active or I would have been safely ensconced in some pleasant restaurant in Quito.

The point was what you could see. Again, miles and miles and miles of beauty.

And you just can’t get to that mountaintop point without hard work and adventure.

If I had been oriented to being in the present moment, I would have noticed much more of the beauty and hard work itself. The Adirondack woods are lovely. I’ll let myself off the hook for Chimbarazo since I was altitude sick and recovering from the second of a series of five rabies shots. But if I was doing it again – and who knows? I might – I would notice more of the beauteous wonder that is a volcanic mountain range.

The hard journey is worth it. Scary times driving around tight curves, hard paths to negotiate, steep inclines, slipping, falling, and still we can get to the point where we see beauty all around.

This is my last Monday Morning Meditation for the foreseeable future. This past year has been quite a journey for me with the slipping, falling, hard work, and hard paths to negotiate. But this time I’m noticing the beauty that I find along the way, and I am convinced, as many have been before me, that I am on my way to the promised land. When you’re climbing a mountain, you take it step by step, sometimes pausing to see what your next step will be. I can only see a few steps ahead.

But here’s the thing: I have learned not to live by my own understanding. Not that I don’t use the good mind God gave me, and not that I don’t take responsibility for and joy in the free choices I get to make because of the mighty and merciful and unending grace of God. But I cannot get stuck inside my own head. I don’t want to be there all by myself. I must see the beauty around me in people and creation.

Yesterday, on my last Sunday, the loving congregation of Trinity United Presbyterian Church gave me a large, beautiful print of a wooden path crossing a stream deep in some woods. You can’t see the path that leads to the modest bridge, and you can’t see the path that leads away on the other side. You can see trees and grasses and flowers, all in sepia tones. The verse underneath is from Proverbs 3:

“Lean on the Lord, and he will make your paths clear.”

So here I go, leaning. I’ll lean on the presence of the Holy Spirit in my own heart and mind, on the Holy Spirit leading me through friends and family, on God who, as John Calvin said, I know truly only if I know that God loves me.

As my brother left Ithaca to head to Ecuador, one of his professors said “Vaya con Dios.”

It is a Spanish phrase that means “Go with God.” I have no idea how hard your climbing through life is, how hard it will be today or in coming years, or how clear your next steps are, and maybe they’re hidden. But I know God goes with you, every step of the way.

Blessings to you all.
Vaya con Dios,

Michelle

Monday Morning Meditation, 22 October 2012 – Beauty

•October 22, 2012 • 8 Comments

My morning routine has been interrupted somewhat by the advent of cooler – or downright cold – weather. I get up, get dressed, make my bed, take the dog downstairs, drink a full glass of cold water, have a small piece of chocolate, take Tuck for a walk, come back, get my coffee started, open the back door to let fresh air in the house (all the windows are painted shut), make sure Tuck has her food and water, give Tuck her morning meds, collect my coffee, and then sit down in the sunroom at the back of my side yard and drink my coffee with Tuck on my lap while I watch the sun come up and let the fresh air with all its sounds and fall aromas come in.

Cooler weather demands a blanket.

Cold weather demands the same routine in the living room.

But because it’s fall, the weather is changeable, and the past couple of mornings have been back to cool and the afternoons have been back to warm. So as I sat this morning watching the sunlight appear (ever more slowly), I was surprised to see that there is a large, gorgeous, deep pink rose in full bloom on the climber over my trellis.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy living in this part of the country. I enjoy full four seasons and the climate is, in general, more hospitable to fun gardening than any other gardening zone I have ever been in.

Of course, I don’t really garden, and that’s why the rose is such a pleasant surprise. I tend to let the garden do what it wants. More accurately, I let it do what it can. Given I almost never water, certainly never feed the plants, really don’t weed and just kind of stare at it, I find it remarkable that the garden gives me such beauty.

Left to its own devices, it’s doing fairly well.

It could, however, be something even more stunning if I tended it, gave it what it needed, took a bit more deliberate care for it. Who knows how many roses there would be for me this morning? Or perhaps the hydrangea would be bigger and fuller with more gorgeous dusty pink plumps of petals? Or the grass would be a purer and more lovely green without weeds? Or the jade trees would be fuller, or the basil continue producing?

I don’t think we have to worry about our beauty or our contribution to the world when we have just barely what we need. Simply by being the creatures God has called into being we bring bursts of color and fragrance into the world. When we have the time, energy, and resources to nurture ourselves, we can, of course, offer even more. But more is not necessarily better, because we do the best we can in any moment, which is the true mark of beauty and commitment. To be and do whoever we are and whatever we can with whatever we have in any one particular moment. Some of our moments all we have to offer is our weakness. Sometimes we offer our full magnificence.

But what I also gather from this single rose is the reminder that there are things I can do to support and nurture the beauty and wonder in life around me. I can ask myself whether or not I’m doing what I can do in a given moment to bring out the best in someone else. Am I helping that person to shine? Am I talking to them in such a way that I build them up or am I tearing them down? Am I affirming their gifts or criticizing them and evaluating their faults, foibles, and weaknesses? Left to their own devices, the people around me will be fine, for they are ultimately growing out of God’s ground, and have more people than me surrounding them. But if I am part of the ground in which they grow – if we are in the garden together – then how I grow affects how they grow. If I grow well, if I mature, if the nutrients I send back into the soil are good ones, then I am helping to bring out the beauty all around me.

This is one of the reasons that Paul writes in Philippians 2 that we are to look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others. The Greek verbs that are translated for us indicate that Paul is exhorting the community of faith in Philippi to strive together instead of against one another. Our culture wants to tell us otherwise, but when it comes to glorifying God by being who God has created us to be, there is no competition. We are beloved individuals created as community. Striving for excellence? Yes, that has a place, as does striving for goodness, truth, and beauty. Conflict? Even that has a place as all these individuals seeking the good, the true, and the beautiful can find themselves at cross purposes seeking the same goal. But competition? Not really. Not in this sense. Not in the garden where each blade of grass, each slug, each herb, each rose contributes to a mass of beauty, whether or not it is an ordered garden of elegance, or one of chaotic and superfluous pleasure for the senses.

This is not to say that the competitive instinct has no place in the beauty of our lives. Rather, it is to say that the beauty of one in no way detracts from the beauty of another. Supporting others only deepens and magnifies the beauty and harmony of the here and now, for it magnifies us as well. When we look to the interests of others and not just to our own, we then have the mind of Christ that Paul talks about, and the magnifying of the beauty of God’s goodness, mercy, grace, and creation increases in a dynamic circle that never ends.

Right now it’s circling through a single large, gorgeous, deep pink rose in full bloom.

Blessings to you all as you notice the beauty in each other and in the world today,

Michelle

Monday Morning Meditation – 8 October 2012 – Grace and Choices

•October 8, 2012 • 5 Comments

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

Ane be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth.”

~Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

How many of us realize that one of the aspects of the unending grace of God is living in freedom and making choices?

So often our talk about grace has to do with forgiveness, and certainly it does. Thankfully, it does! But if you read Ephesians and so many other passages in scripture you will find that Divine grace includes mercy, joy, delight, and freedom and permission.

We are permitted to make choices. In fact, we are called upon to make choices. Just how are we going to live out this life of grace? It is given to us, we read in Ephesians 2, and we can’t take it away. It is. So how are we going to choose to live as though we are people of grace?

We make our choices knowing that along the way we will surely make mistakes. We make our choices knowing that we cannot control the outcome of our actions or words. We make our choices in hope and sometimes they result in delight, sometimes in sadness. We make our choices in freedom, whether we know it or not, though sometimes we don’t make our choices freely.

That’s because we have allowed rules to creep in as a substitute for grace. We have allowed structures and fences and all sorts of things to come in and make our lives rigid, leading us to expectations we place on ourselves that are so deep in our bones we don’t even know they’re there. We do this because we human beings crave measurement. We want to be able to judge people and put them in categories whether they are good or bad. We don’t want to tolerate the gray shades, or admit that each and everyone of us is, as the Reformers put it, “simil justus et peccator:” simultaneously justified and a sinner. We sometimes make terrible mistakes, hurt people deeply, or waste something or someone precious to us. But each one of us is always precious to God, who sees all that we are and who surrounds us and lavishes us with grace. There is nothing for us to measure because the very idea makes no sense if what we’re talking about is the grace that God gives freely to the whole universe and each one of us in it. This grace is ours, and it is eternal and infinite.

So we have this crazy freedom to deal with. Making mistakes doesn’t take that freedom away, and we have to act in freedom (because that’s our reality) even if we can’t control outcomes. Make no mistake – this freedom does not mean that we get the circumstances we want. But whatever our situation we have choices to make about how we will live freely in this particular moment.

This grace gets even more intriguing when we realize that it’s us that’s making these choices. We can only be one traveler, as Robert Frost points out. The exercise of our freedom is a life of discernment in which we find that every time we say “yes” to one thing we say “no” to something else. We can go one way or the other. The road of our lives sometimes splits into two and we, in the freedom of the grace we have been given from God in Christ, are given the gift of choice.

This marks the first of my last four Monday Morning Meditations. For those of you who are not members of Trinity United Presbyterian Church, the news that I have come to two roads diverging in a yellow wood may be unexpected. I hope that I have been seeking God’s leading my whole life, but I certainly have with the topsy-turvy nature of my last year. The Shepherd has made it clear that I am being led to other pastures to feed, and so I have submitted my resignation to Trinity. My last Sunday will be October 28.

Robert Frost ends his poem by saying “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence.” I am already sighing, because saying yes to the leading of God means saying no to serving the congregation at Trinity, the congregation I love and who loves me so much more than I deserve. But in Deuteronomy 30, while God gives the people a choice between life and death, God so clearly wants them to choose life. Life is where God is leading me.

Life is where God is leading all of us. Even in the midst of our most awful experiences, when we can’t see life in front of us or feel the surround of grace, God is calling us into the freedom that is life. And that life – that grace – calls us to choices. We can’t live passively if we know grace. If we know grace, we find ourselves in gratitude and can’t help but respond. It’s one path or another, but because of grace, they can both be paths that are choices for life.

Blessings to you all,

Michelle

Tuesday Morning Meditation – 2 October 2012 – Emotions and Time

•October 2, 2012 • 4 Comments

Isn’t it interesting that we can have emotions coming every which way, swirling around in us all at the same time?

It seems we’re never just one thing, unless a particular emotion is so intense that it’s taking us over for a while. Sharp grief can do this, as can overwhelming delight or the anger of a good fierce fury. And even then, it’s not so much that they take us over as that they fill us up, and it’s hard to see past that emotion and notice that there are other things we’re feeling too.

It must be so hard, for instance, to send your child off to college. I imagine I would be sad: I’m sad each time my nephews and nieces leave after a visit. On the other hand, how fun it is to see the kids we love learning and growing and thriving. Maybe we’re watching a younger person we know struggle like crazy through pain and suffering while also seeing their success and strength at doing so.

We can feel the grief inside our bodies of a lost loved one and also laugh at a good joke. We can be worried about our diagnosis and the upcoming treatments and have a blast getting all the news around town from our best friend. We can be discouraged, thoroughly discouraged and at the same time know that we have hope and that there is hope.

Sometimes I don’t understand how this is possible. Yes, sometimes we let our emotions run away with us, we let them take over. Sometimes we have to, and St. Augustine even suggested that this is appropriate. For instance, if our mother or another loved one dies, we grieve. And we grieve 24/7 for at least a little while. But generally, that grief – or anger, or delight, or love – lives alongside of other stuff in us. In one sense, we don’t experience emotions as though we’re bound by time. We don’t have first one, and then another after the first one’s done, and so on.

And I’m curious about what this tells us about being human. We are God’s beloved creatures, so how do we make sense out of all this?

I’m not sure we do, and I’m fairly certain we can’t. But we human beings seem to have been created to experience the fullness of life and all that comes with it: sadness, joy, sorrow, regret, pleasure, healthy pride, delight, gratification, anger, you name it. We experience this as God’s creatures, not separate from God. And so maybe what does make sense is that our life of feeling and expression is not time-bound, that all this experience can exist in the same person because God is always surrounding us and with us, somehow.

In Ecclesiastes 3 we read:

He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

God seeks out what has gone by.

Nothing in our lives is wasted or lost. We may think we have filled time with nothing and thus misused it, or that the days or weeks or years we have spent in sorrow made us lose out on living. But God seeks out what has gone by, while that which is already has been and that which is to be already is, right now. Our emotions spark and settle, and we experience the fullness of life that God has called us to.

This is what we mean by infinite: with God there is no beginning or end. We are who we are, and bound to God by God’s own love and grace, we can be a swirl of emotions and God will seek out what we think has gone by.

Blessings to you all,

Michelle

Wednesday Afternoon Meditation, 26 September 2012 – Meditation

•September 26, 2012 • 6 Comments

Those of you in worship last Sunday will find it ironic that it has taken me until now to write my regular Monday Morning Meditation.

Our scripture passage for the sermon was this:

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

We considered what we learn about meditation on the word of God – that it is delight. We are called to meditate on the law of God (all the teachings of Torah) and we are delighted to do so because we learn to embody and embrace God’s call to love and all that this vocation entails.

So why was I not meditative enough to send you this email at its regularly scheduled Monday morning time?

I could blame that on a few things.

1. Football. Yes, I watch football.

2. The fact that Mom sliced her wrist on the zipper of one of my couch cushions on Sunday evening, only to be followed by breaking her foot on my outside steps a couple of hours later.

3. Ordering and enjoying absolutely fantastic pizza from The Red Pepperoni.

4. Keeping an eye on Tuck and Koppy, my old pup and my parents’ dog, to ensure that their uneasy truce errs on the side of truce rather than on the side of uneasy.

5. A long meeting on Monday.

Surely some of these are good excuses for not meditating?

Well, no, they’re not. Especially if I am going to practice what I preach.

Meditation is a delight day and night for those who walk the way of God, and they are happy because of it. “Day and night” surely doesn’t mean constantly reading the written word we have before us. Instead, meditation is a practice of holding that word – that law of God to love God and others – close inside our hearts and minds as a rhythm supporting our very breath, and our every thought, our every act of love. We meditate by returning again and again to the treasure that is already inside us, the verses from scripture or the lines from hymns and poetry that turn our hearts again and again back to God. Or we meditate by focusing on and learning some new verse or line, waiting for it to drop from our heads into our hearts.

And there I went, forgetting to remember who I am, a beloved child of God called to a life of love. I did not attend to that underlying rhythm of meditation that is the power within me. That is the power God is at work with to accomplish abundantly far more than all I could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3).

Meditation is more than a worthy endeavor. It is bread for the journey, a fountain of sustenance, a spring of joy and comfort. I may have dropped the meditative ball for a day or two, but as St. Benedict is reported to have said “Always we begin again.”

God welcomes us at each restart, embraces us each time we begin again, encompasses us always.

Blessings to you all,

Michelle

Monday Morning Meditation, 18 September 2012 – Bittersweet Life

•September 18, 2012 • 8 Comments

The folks at the vet’s office where I take Tuck get a kick out of her. Each time I pick her up from a kennel visit, they remark on her energy. She plays with the puppies, evidently, and wears them out. In human years she’s about 85 years old. When she’s home, she sleeps soundly and is getting a bit deaf so sometimes she doesn’t even wake up when I come home, open the creaky door, walk on the creaky floor, and shut the key box after hanging my jangling bunch of keys. What’s the difference between the kennel and home?

At the kennel she has a pack. At home, the pack is very tiny, just her and me. And most of the time I’m working on the house or sitting here with a computer on my lap. She won’t leave my side, won’t hang out in another room, and wants to be on my lap as much as possible. She gets all the pack time she can from me, but here at home she is pack-deprived. At the kennel there’s the same pack time after time – a big pack – with plenty of people and dogs.

No doubt, this makes me sad. I wish she had more of the pack she wants here at home. Truth is, she prefers to be here rather than there. She never wants to stay at the kennel when I pick her up, and she’s not terribly keen on going, though not averse, when I take her in. She prefers me.

She loves me as a dog does, and I am her alpha dog. She might be happier and more energized with the bigger pack, but in the end, she wants to be grounded with me. No amount of time with those people and dogs that love her and love to play with her can substitute for me. They are an important part of her life, but not the grounding of her life.

How do we comprehend this sort of bittersweet life?

Circumstances simply cannot be perfect, nor can relationships. We hurt each other, we miss each other, we love each other, we delight in each other. But we can’t be everything for each other, and we can’t have each other all the time or forever.

Parents say goodbye to their kids as they go off to college. Friends move. An important person may long to be with us and even though we can’t give them the time we (or they) want, we count the moments as precious. Beloved ones suffer in many different ways, and beloved ones die.

It is a bittersweet life.

Nonetheless, we can live our lives fully, offering thanksgiving to God for the sweet and the endurance needed for the bitter. Mumford and Sons have this to say in their song “After the Storm:”

“Night has always pushed up day.
You must know life to see decay.
But I won’t rot.
I won’t rot.
Not this mind and not this heart.
I won’t rot.”

It’s not so much that we defy the bitter in life as that we refuse to let it get in the way of what is sweet to us.

In the Old Testament we read the well known story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God. Scholars agree that wrestling with the angel is wrestling with God Godself, and Jacob refuses to give up until he receives a blessing from God. He gets that blessing, and he leaves a changed man, after all that wrestling.

My life, and especially this last year, has been full of wrestling, bitter and sweet mixed together. Almost all of us have these sorts of lives. But I want to live into the sweet, to not give up the wrestling until I receive a blessing, even if it changes me. Tuck doesn’t give up, not ever. She wrestles as every dog does, for the most part, longing to be in perfect harmony all the time with her owner, but willing to wait until she receives the blessing she longs for, which is being with me.

God wants to bless us, wants us to struggle through the bitter and refuse to give up on the sweet. God does not want us to rot. The more we gaze in wonder on the sweet, the closer we get to the vision of the kingdom of God. That is a peaceable kingdom in which all creation lives in harmony, and where no one will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the water covers the sea.

Don’t give up on the sweet.

Blessings to you all,

Michelle

Monday Morning Meditation, 10 September 2012 – Desire

•September 10, 2012 • 4 Comments

Desire: I am becoming more and more sure that desire is one of God’s life giving ways with us.

I’m reading a book, On Being Liked, by James Alison, that talks about how we learn to desire what exactly it is that we desire. We learn desire through the eyes of others. I’ve had conversations with a lot of you and I can hear some of you saying something along the lines of “I just want what I want. Nobody can tell me what I want.” But the fact of the matter is that we are taught what we want – what is desirable – from the time we are babes. People teach us what is good and true and beautiful. We see through their eyes what it is that we should want. Think about it: isn’t it the case that it is through the eyes of your parents or friends or peer groups that you wanted to wear certain things in high school? That the neighborhood you lived in set a standard for what a good house is? That the people with you in your early years taught you what kind of people to look for, what kind of people to desire for partners in life or for friends?

The question, Alison says, is not whether we learn desire through the eyes of another, learning to desire what they desire. The question is exactly who that other is.

And, he says, as Christians we learn desire through the eyes of Christ, God incarnate, God in the flesh.

If we think about things this way, then we realize that God desires us. I’ve quoted this line over and over again, I know, but in the movie Chariots of Fire, the character of Eric Liddell, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary, has a hard conversation with his sister. She is worried that he’s getting distracted from God because he’s spending so much time running, getting ready for the Olympics and he says to her:

“Jennie, God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. Not to do so would be to hold him in contempt.”

God created us! God created us with pleasure and delight. How can we do anything with our lives but respond to God’s desire for us – a desire so deep and loving and passionate that God incarnate in Christ would suffer on the cross and die to restore us to God – by living out the desires God has given us, the desires in which we know we feel God’s pleasure?

We all know our desires can be seriously selfish and detrimental to ourselves and others, and direct us away from God. This desire that God gives us and uses in our lives is not self indulgent and it is not a license to do whatever we want. St. Teresa put it this way: “Do what kindles love in you.” And I have a Christian companion who keeps reminding me of a particular quote: “Love God by doing what God has given you to love to do.”

Desire: we love to cook, think, walk, read, visit, eat, play card games, run, sew, garden, fix, take photos, comfort those in need in body and soul, go on adventures, run organizations, heal, and the list goes on and on.

Do what kindles love in you.

Love God by doing what God has given you to love to do.

Feel God’s pleasure.

And notice what you truly desire that opens you up to feeling God’s pleasure in you.

Blessings to you all,

Michelle

Monday Morning Meditation, 6 August 2012

•August 6, 2012 • 3 Comments

In the book of Jeremiah we read about the people of God who were taken into exile in Babylon. They were cast out of their homeland for having turned their backs on God, yet one of the strangest things happens: God tells them that even though they are in exile they should still life to the fullest. They should plant gardens and eat what they produce, they should build houses and get married and have children.

We also read these words that the prophet Jeremiah brought from God:

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity.

Can you imagine being cast out of New Washington? Some of you folks have been there for decades and decades. I can’t even conceive of what that would be like for people here in Madison, some of whom own a home downtown simply because it has been in their family for seven generations.

But the thing is, people are cast out of what is home to them all the time. It’s already happening this summer as some farmers are losing the land they have worked so hard to tend. The economy is bad enough in some places, including Madison, that the seventh generation finally has to sell the family home. This isn’t sin, but it is exile. It’s being cast out from what you know as home.

The same thing happens in divorce. What was home is torn apart. When someone loses a job a major part of their daily home life is turned upside down and home becomes a precarious place. Perhaps a beloved family member is in dire trouble of some sort, maybe health or something else, but anyway something that threatens the wellbeing of the whole family. Death of a loved one can change the sense of home overnight, because something we love, something that was part of home, is gone.

When home is lost or lonely or shattered, the outer confusion and chaos leads to inner confusion and chaos. We can feel like we’re lost and wandering around and don’t know what to do next. Maybe we feel hopeless.

The words in the verses above have been comforting God’s people ever since they were spoken and read, generation to generation. The sentences are rich and packed. It’s not a simple promise and it’s not a guarantee of anything except this: although we can’t say when, we know that we will find God when we seek God with our whole heart, and God will be present to us. We know that God – the Lord of the universe! – has plans for us, not to harm, us, but to prosper us and give us peace. We know that our future will be one filled with hope.

The comfort we can take from these words assures and can scare us. The only guarantee we have here is that God loves us, holds us in the present and the future, and will be found by us. We don’t know when peace will be established within us or around us. We don’t know what our future full of hope will be hope for. The plans God has for us may not be the plans we have for ourselves.

But the promise is ultimately the most important: all of this depends on God, who loves us.

Dependence on God is trust, and trust is scary because it means we let go of controlling our circumstances and it means we let go of trying to control God by behaving the exact right way or believing the exact right thing. Trust, in fact, as terrifying as it can be, means we open ourselves to the God who promises us God’s presence, who promises us peace and a future and a hope.

A friend of mine says a lot that the world is not fixed, not steady and predictable. What he means is that circumstances change all the time. Trust in God is a leap of faith that God is steady: God is, has been, and always will be God who loves us. How God does that is something we cannot control.

But we can listen to God and live life to the fullest right where we are, trusting that God is present in all the goodness and delight and pain of what our lives are like right now.

Blessings to you all,

Michelle

Preaching is serious business. Seriously fun business.

•July 30, 2012 • 6 Comments

I don’t preach from notes, so throughout the week I have to practice sermons out loud and in my head, as well as write them out. This past week was average: I wrote a completely new sermon three times.

All this rewriting happens because the Word I seek to preach is not my own, but it is seriously hard business to find a way to preach what God is seeking to communicate with us all, rather than preach whatever agenda I might have. But it is also the case that the preacher God has called me to be has certain skills, gifts, and interests, and, most importantly, her own relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. I am one member of the body of Christ presenting scripture and interpretation for the sake of understanding the Word in everyday life.

Ezra and others did this for the people in Nehemiah 8, when the people themselves request to hear the Word of God. “Men and women and all who could understand” were gathered together. The scroll was read to them, and interpretation was given. They heard the law and went into mourning because they perceived they had broken it. But Ezra and all the other priests told them “Do not be sad!” Instead, the word they gave the people was that they should go home and feast and send portions to those who had nothing prepared, and they could joyfully remember that the joy of the Lord was their strength.

One of the questions I have is what Ezra and the other priests gained themselves that day. What relief did they receive for their own lives? Cognizant of their own sin, surely, when they realized this was what they needed to say, they also saw that it was the word for them too.

That is why preaching is seriously fun business. Did Ezra and the others know the people would go into mourning over their sin? I imagine not. So they had to be so engaged with the law, so subject to it themselves, have spent so much time in study, that they could bring together what God wanted them all to hear at that particular time in that particular place.

This past week was the second week of a series I am preaching on Colossians 3:1-17. I realize it is an odd pericope, odd especially since week 1 was spent on verses 1-11, and that 12-17 will have one week apiece. But the whole concept of setting aside the practices of the old nature – practices of death like slander, malice, lust, and greed – and putting on a new nature is something each and every one of us desperately needs to hear. Each one of us.

The reason I preach is because I can’t help but think about the text, and because God has led me into this way of doing theology where it is a matter of life and death. How each one of us walks out those church doors into God’s beloved world is of the utmost importance.

So each week I take the task of preaching seriously. I study, I think, I pray, pray, pray. I read and re-read. I’ll let my attention be drawn to certain concepts and words and ponder them. I will wonder throughout the week what God is saying to me that I need to hear, for we are all subject to the Word.

What takes this serious business into seriously fun usually happens all of a sudden at the end of the week, when everything that’s been swirling in my mind and heart all of a sudden forms a pattern, like the “strange attractor” in chaos theory. This past week, preaching on Colossians 3:12, I was thinking about compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience as virtues.

This past week I was also working and reworking the lyrics of Mumford and Sons’ “Roll Away Your Stone” because I could not grasp the meaning of the last chorus. Who knows if I ended up understanding what they wanted me to, but this is what I got out of it:

Stars hide your fires
These here are my desires
And I will give them up to you this time around
And so I’ll be found
With my stake stuck in the ground
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul.

The connection to Colossians 3:12 is not immediately obvious, to say the least. But I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of my sermon. I was thinking of it because I love this song – this whole album – and the lyrics are rich and interesting, but I don’t understand them all. I finally looked it up. “Stars hide your fires” is a reference to Macbeth:

“Stars, hide your fires/let not light see my black and deep desires”

Knowing Macbeth a little, I understand that Macbeth is grasping at power even while he has a struggle of conscience with what he is doing. That’s clear in these lines: he does not want his darkness or sin to be seen. Light reveals what we want to be kept hidden.

That thought returned me to the Mumford and Sons lyrics, because while they quote the line, they leave out the comma after “stars.” That might not mean anything. But the lines that follow tweak Macbeth’s words. They don’t ask for light to shine on their desires, but they “give them up to you.” Not only that, but their lyrics declare that in doing so they “will be found.”

They will be seen and known. Giving up our desires to “you” – as a Christian pastor I would say “to God” – not only brings our desires and sins into the light, but directly into our relationship with God. It is an act of integrity.

Fascinating!

And then it hit me: in 1 Thessalonians 5 there is reference to being people of the night or people of the day. When we do things we want to be hidden we often do them during the night when they can’t be seen. So we are called to act in such a way that our actions can be seen in full daylight, whether or not our behavior is witnessed during night or day. We put aside the practices of the old nature (I’m back to Colossians 3, now), the practices that we want hidden, in order to put on the practices that are pure light, that put our whole selves into the effort of being renewed in conformation to the one in whose image we are created (Colossians 3:10).

A preacher never knows if his or her sermons “work.” But preaching is seriously fun business when connections in our hearts and minds are sparked, like jazz improvs, and we understand the Word to ourselves in a way that deepens our own relationships with God. We always have to leave the effectiveness of it all up to the Holy Spirit, even when we put so much work into it. Perhaps especially because we put so much work into it. Calvin pointed out that all the gifts we receive are for our own enjoyment and for the building up of the body. I receive gifts like these most weeks, intellectual fun, insights that expand my heart and spirit, and I trust the Holy Spirit to make the most out of it.

It’s serious business. Seriously fun business.

Monday Morning Meditation, 30 July 2012

•July 30, 2012 • 4 Comments

I have had so much fun watching the Olympics with my nephews these past few days. I love their commentary when these men and women do extraordinary things with their bodies. The women gymnastic competition in the vault was jaw-dropping a couple of times: they throw their bodies up in the air, twist them around a lot of times, very fast, and then land with grace. How on earth do they do that? Or women’s volleyball? Crazy good blocks and kill shots and rallies as they keep the ball going back and forth from one side of the net to the other. Men’s swimming – the sheer power, especially since we get to see the underwater shots and the way they visibly force the water around them.

Practice, practice, practice. These people have been practicing, the vast majority of them, since they were small children. One exception to this is the female cyclist who picked it up in 2008 because she wanted to ride with her sister and then discovered she could actually win. But even in her case, she has been practicing, practicing, practicing. And it is simply amazing what we can do when we practice.

I should know. I can’t play the piano very well because…I don’t have the skills? No, I do have the skills. But I stopped practicing.

But I’ve been cooking for years, practicing, practicing, practicing, and my nephews loved the chicken shepherd’s pie I made last night for supper. I sort of followed a recipe, sort of, because I’ve made it before and I tend to adapt anyway. But the reason I can adapt is because I have practiced for years.

When you practice, practice, practice, you know how to get constructively creative with whatever you’re involved in. A swimmer who has been practicing for years knows enough about how their bodies work with the physics of water to make slight adjustments to what might be proper form in order to increase their speed. Practice of the classics is what allows jazz musicians to improvise: they don’t just make it up out of nothing, they improvise because they know scales and chords and classic pieces of music and can play them well. So they know how to put new things together. Cooks come up with new recipes the same way: they’ve messed around with pie crusts and fruit enough to know they can add this ingredient or this combination of fruits, and voila! A new delicacy shows up at Senior Day.

And of course the power behind practice and excellence is not dumb luck, it’s the internal commitment to joy and improvement. Eric Liddell says it in the movie “Chariots of Fire:” “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. Not to do so would be to hold him in contempt.” Athletes are famous for saying that excellence in sports is 10% physical skills and 90% mental skills.

All of this means that we can engage in practice, practice, practice in those Christian virtues we considered yesterday from Colossians 3:12: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. We can practice, practice, practice, get better and deeper, know them so well that we can get creative with them and embody these virtues better than before.

This does two things. It helps us grow into more joyful and mature Christians. It also turns us into light that shines, that other people see and are amazed by. For how are we not amazed when we see compassion in the most unlikely situations? Or gentleness?

Wouldn’t it be cool as Christians for us to amaze others with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience just as the Olympic athletes amaze us?

Blessings to you all,

Michelle