A Safer Space: Praying the Psalms (Part 2)

When I was a little girl, my parents travelled a lot.  I had a great babysitter who I still fondly remember.  My dad not only traveled with my mom for fun, but he was also traveling for work.  When he would return home, I think he expected to be greeted at the door with excitement, a huge smile, a shout of “daddy” and a big hug. Maybe he expected the type of greeting that a dog gives you when you return home.  But that is not what he got with me.  Instead, I gave him the cold shoulder.  I acted like “I don’t need you anyways!  I am fine without you.”  I’m sure this made him sad, but at an early age I was giving signs that my attachment style was not as healthy as it could be.

So, when Chad and I started getting serious in our relationship, we had some challenges regarding his need for me to need him and my inability to need him.  I thought I was independent and did not like the idea of needing someone except for the fact that I really wanted to share life with someone, but I wasn’t really sure how to do that.  One day, he just asked me, “What do you need me for?” And I responded with a deer in the headlights look and said nothing.  He said, “Exactly.”  I could not see what the big deal was.  Didn’t he want someone strong and independent?  Didn’t he like that I figured out how to do things?  Didn’t he like that I wasn’t an emotional rollercoaster like many of my female friends?

The other great challenge we encountered in our first year of marriage was that it did not take much for me to think that he was up to no good. One day, my friends and I were meeting at the library to study and during the course of this study time, one of my friends said to me, “I can’t believe you are sitting here so calm while your new husband is out buying a car with his father!”  To which I replied turning all shades of red, “What?” She apologized because she assumed I knew.  I was mad on so many levels.  One, that I did not know that he was out looking for a car. Two, that he had asked his father to go and not me.  Now this second one was more about who has the power and not a feeling of rejection.  I was angry that my father n law held more power over his son than me.  Well that was going to quickly change.  I headed out of the library and quickly called him up.  He answered, “Hey sweetheart!” and I yelled and told him that I could not believe what he was doing.  Later he told me that he smiled a big smile and held the phone away from his ear until I was finished.  Then, he calmly quieted my fears and said he had a free afternoon and knew I had a meeting with friends and that he was not buying a car, just having fun looking.

As you can hear, I was struggling with what it meant to trust someone in an intimate relationship. When you begin to study trust, you quickly turn to research on attachment styles.  Attachment is the lasting emotional relationship that begins with infants and ties the infants to one or more persons in their lives. For healthy attachment to occur, parents and caregivers must attune themselves to the babies’ needs and temperaments. This means that if a parent has a different temperament, say they are very active, and the baby has a calm and quiet temperament, the parents and caregivers must adjust to the baby’s style instead of pushing the baby to change to meet the parent’s style. Babies learn to trust or mistrust on a precognitive level through the hormonal and chemical messengers they receive in their body.

Let’s look at the main 4 styles of attachment: secure, anxious insecure, avoidant secure, and disorganized insecure. 

Secure.  Need we say more!  They are emotionally supportive. They are flexible in times of closeness and in times of distance. They trust their partner to be there when they need them and can easily identify and talk about their emotions. They advocate for themselves.

Anxious Insecure. Experiences fear of abandonment; tolerates mistreatment; does not advocate for themselves and experiences anxiety when they are away from their loved ones.

Avoidant Insecure. Difficulty forming close relationships; Seems independent. Has a hard time recognizing their emotions.

Disorganized Insecure. In childhood they experienced trauma or abuse that was a betrayal of their safety; they teeter totter between their desire to love someone and their need to survive. This can look like having times where they are overly trusting and following with times of being suspicious or withdrawn. They see signs of rejection everyone even if no signs really exist.

Attachment styles give us an indication of our ability to trust. Trust is hard and if trust does not develop early it can lead to some serious challenges in adult relationships. And if it is hard to trust someone that we can experience with our senses, then just imagine how hard it is to trust in God.  I can see that it might be very easy to trust in God if your parents were emotionally present and consistently supportive.  I can see how if a parent attunes their temperament to that of their child, then a child would grow up with an easier time trusting that God loves them for exactly how God created them to be.  But if you struggle with feelings of abandonment, then maybe you more quickly sense God’s abandonment.  If you put up with being mistreated because of your attachment style, then maybe the view of God that makes sense to you is one that sends people to hell if they don’t say the right words or pray the right prayer.  If you don’t need anyone because you don’t trust them to be there for you anyways, then maybe you have a hard time understanding how to trust God.  If you have fear and anxiety when forming intimate human relationships, then maybe those feelings emerge when you pour your heard out to God.

If you are like me and you have a few rough edges, then rest assured that your attachment style has served you well in the past.  It was developed for your and my protection and survival and you and I can grow to have a more secure attachment style when we realize that the attachment style we are currently operating out of no longer serves us.

These are the very human things that we think about during the season of Lent. This year we are focusing on Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. The ancient path is not a path chosen by many because it invites us into deep reflection about the complex human experience. So, Lent is a perfect time to consider the many words found in the psalms that give voice to the struggle of what it means to be in relationship with God, nature, and each other. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal, but also very communal in that for thousands of years our people have sung these prayerful words giving expression to emotions that are both their own and larger than individual experience. In the Psalms we can find a connection point across generations because if you are feeling something and wondering if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms, you will find that you are not alone.

Today, we are looking at Psalm 62.  This psalm is divided into 3 sections and so we will look at each section.

The first section is verses 1-4.  In this section the Psalmist begins with these words, “My soul waits in silence for God alone.” The word only or alone is used 6x’s in this Psalm.  This first verse orients the entire passage in that this Psalm is about waiting on God in times suffering.  But this waiting in silence is not just a passive silence.  It is one that signals hope and is a radical act of trust in God’s power and desire to do good.  The Psalmist talks about taking refuge in God by stating that God is his rock and stronghold so nothing will shake him.  This reminds us of Jesus passage where he tells each one of us to build our house on the rock, so that when the winds come and the waters rise, we will not be greatly shaken

In verse 3 &4 the Psalmist tells God about his suffering. He describes his enemies attacking the weak and the vulnerable those who are like leaning walls and tottering fences.  What are our enemies today?  The Psalmist gives us two: a lack of honesty and jealousy. 

Maybe we might add to that greed, materialism, intolerance, hate, racism, fear, inequality, some say that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to caring for Mother Earth. The Dalai Lama in The Book of Joy adds that our thoughts are another enemy. When we are suffering, there is the initial wound. But how we think about and process that wound can either create more suffering or less suffering.  For example, if someone were to attack my character by writing a horrible article in the Leader, then that is the initial wound.  But my perspective about the wound can either be the second arrow in my heart or lead to my healing.  I can think to myself, “Wow, they are right. I am a terrible person. I should not be a minister. I am not smart enough. Not strong enough. Not wise enough.” That line of thinking only causes more suffering.  Or, I can think to myself. You know, I am not perfect and I can use this as an opportunity to pick one thing that I can do to grow.  I can also remember that many leaders from various religious traditions have been attacked and persecuted for who God created them to be and the role God asked them to play, so I can take comfort in that the Great Cloud of Witness knows this story has been played over and over again. 

The perspective that there is something that I can do about it and pausing to find solidarity in suffering actually eases the suffering.     

In verses 5-10, we enter the second part of the psalms.  In this section, the Psalmist is shifting from his own personal experience to encourage the community to learn from his experience.  What is he wanting them to learn?  He wants them to learn that it is only God. God alone has the power and desires to work all things for good.

He is talking to them about where to place their trust.  For the Psalmist and in many cases for us, people have let us down and we lose part of our ability to trust them.  The Psalmist later writes that people who attack the vulnerable are only breath; he writes that they are even lighter than the breath.  Even though we can lessen the power that humans have in our lives, it is still much easier to put our trust in human power when we can see, hear, smell, and touch humans, but the psalmist is inviting us to see that human power or the power of money cannot be trusted to secure our lives because they are fleeting..here today and gone tomorrow. Only God is our rock and our fortress. Only God stands the test of time. The Psalmist writes, “God alone has the power and desires to work all things for good. So my soul waits in silence for God alone;”

But what does it mean to trust in God? 
One of the commentators wrote that trust involves risk.  This commentator quoted from Jurgen Moltmann who wrote, “We trust in God because God trusts in us.” Or to say this a different way, “We risk following God because God risks calling us.”

Remember the ancestors of our faith, Abraham and Sarah.  God came to them and said, “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”  Then God promised 3 things: You will become a great nation; your name will be great; everyone will be blessed through you.

And so, they left home, risked everything and now they are the mother and father of our faith tradition. 

Think about the first disciples.  In Mark 1: 16-20, we read that Jesus walked beside the sea of Galilee where he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake.  Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, “Come, follow me.” And the scriptures say that they left their nets and followed him.  Then Jesus saw James and his brother John fishing with their father Zebedee and he called to them and they left their boat, they left their father and followed Jesus.  These disciples took a risk and are the apostles in our faith tradition.

The Psalmist closes this psalm in verses 11-12. In this last section, he is telling us why we can trust in God.  The Psalmist writes that we can trust God because God is faithful or steadfast and that God has power. And it’s the combination of the two that are important.

If you’ll remember last week, I shared with you that the word used for steadfast love or faithfulness is Hesed in Hebrew.  Hesed is used 250x’s in the Hebrew Bible and ½ of those times, you find it in the Psalms and so it is not a surprise that we see this word pop up again in our Psalm for today. Sometimes in the Hebrew bible, Hesed is translated as faithfulness, but it is a faithfulness out of generosity and not out of obligation.  Hesed is translated as loyalty which embodies mercy. The root of Hesed means to bow ones head towards another in covenantal relationship. You can think about it like this…in covenantal relationship there are rights and responsibilities for both parties.  But in the case of a covenantal relationship between humans and God, God is hesed. God’s character is a generous faithfulness and God’s loyalty is full of mercy.  So, we as the other party in the covenantal relationship can find a sense of safety and rest in the relationship because God does not just offer or promise Hesed; God is hesed. No matter what happens God faithfulness is generous towards us.  No matter where we find ourselves God remains mercifully loyal.

Now mix Hesed with God’s power and you have a God worthy of your trust.  What this means to me is that As Creator God calls God’s creation good and so the natural progression would be for God’s power to sustain also continues working to bring about good in this world. And not only is God’s power oriented towards creating good and sustaining goodness, but God’s desire is to see all things work together for good. And so we can join the Psalmist in saying, “God alone has the power and desires to work all things for good. So my soul waits in silence for God alone;”

And as we wait, we may not see all that is happening. In Chad and my relationship, I have felt that God worked all things together for good through my mess of trust issues.  I’m not sure where you saw me in the 4 attachment styles but I would say that over the past 21 years that I have shifted to behaving in ways that show that I am securely attached. Situations can certainly still trigger me and make me lose my mind, but I also am able to recognize my style and offer myself some compassion when I find myself in that state, so that I can shift to a more secure way of relating before I pick up the phone and yell at my husband!

I’m sure that you have stories of how God has worked in your life to bring about good or maybe you are in the middle of that story hoping that God is working for the good of all. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians prays for the church in Ephesus and I will say it is a prayer for us to trust in God’s power and God’s Hesed. Let the words of this prayer wash over you and prepare you to come to the communion table.

I pray that out of God’s glorious riches, you might be strengthened by God’s power through God’s spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the Lord’s holy people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

A Safer Space: Praying the Psalms (Part 1)

My day begins when my alarm goes off at 3:09 am.  I quickly throw on clothes, make the drive to Saint Benedicts Monastery and I am in my seat by 3:29am.  She writes, “The monks in white robes have gathered silently on benches in the very back of the church. As the hall clock sounds a single chime Brother Thomas intones the psalm verse, “O Lord, open my lips,” and the brothers respond, “and my mouth will declare your praise.” Then, they begin to chant “O come bless the Lord, all who fear the Lord,” from Psalm 134. This is a summary of Cynthia Bourgeault’s experience in learning to chant the Psalms.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest who writes extensively about spiritual practices, teaches at Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, and leads spiritual retreats. One of the books that I picked up recently is her book called Chanting the Psalms.  Cynthia has been chanting the Psalms for over 30 years and writes this book so that others might connect to this ancient practice that is a spiritual treasure in our faith tradition. Cynthia continues to describe what she experienced at Saint Benedicts Monastery in the Colorado mountains.

She describes the order of that early morning worship flowing from a psalm, another reading from scripture, silence, then another psalm, a reading from a commentary and another period of silence, then a chanted psalm, a spoken psalm, a reading of the Gospel and a blessing from the abbot. It is now 4:15 am and the hour of silent meditation begins at 4:30am so the monks disperse to prepare themselves by grabbing a cup of coffee or retreating for a practice of lectio divina.

All over the world, monks in the Benedictine tradition are rising at this early hour, moving through a similar pattern to worship, and doing what they call “night work” which finds its grounding in Psalm 130 which says, “My soul longs for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.”  The early morning gathering begins the day, but the day is fueled by other times of worship. During the day, the monks gather at sunrise, before lunch and after lunch and then again before bedtime.  They order their day so that at regular intervals they might refresh themselves through prayer and psalmody.

This brings us to our Psalm for today that is a reminder of our longing for God to refresh us throughout the day. The Psalm begins with the words, “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

You were each given a very salty snack when you arrived today.  What if you sat here the entire service eating that salty snack without knowing when your next sip of water might be?  How might this very human experience remind you of the longing of your soul for the living God? How might we order our days differently to be refreshed in body, mind and spirit?

These are the questions that we ask ourselves in the season of Lent. This year we are focusing on Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. The ancient path is not a path chosen by many because it invites us into deep reflection about the complex human experience. So, Lent is a perfect time to consider the many words found in the psalms that give voice to what it means to be in relationship with God, nature, and each other. We open the Psalms and find words about human struggle, despair, feelings of abandonment, remorse, cries for justice, hope, and finding refuge in God. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal, but also very communal in that for thousands of years our people have sung these prayerful words giving expression to emotions that are both their own and larger than individual experience. There is a connection point across generations because if you are feeling something and wondering if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms, you will find that you are not alone.

The Psalms were written down in the period that is called the Axial period.  During this time which is thought to be from 800-200 BCE, the world was taking a dramatic leap forward in spiritual consciousness.  During this time, Lao-tzu and Confucius gave birth to Chinese philosophy. In India, this period of time gave birth to the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha. Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato were laying the foundation for Western Philosophy in Greece and in Persia the Zoroaster teachings introduced the ideas of a battle between good and evil and that individuals have freedom of choice.  All of this new thought was shifting the collective consciousness from tribal membership to individual accountability.

The Psalms were written down during this time period. First, they hold the living memory of our ancestors of the faith. Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Here you’ll find recounted and reworked the essential drama of the story of Israel: the escape from captivity in Egypt and triumphant entry into the promised land; the glory days of King David and King Solomon; when Israel’s fortunes reached their pinnacle; the slow slide from glory amid gathering inner doubt and outer embattledness; the destruction of Jerusalem; the exile in Babylon; the miracle of restoration, and the slow maturation of this miracle into a firm messianic hope. All of this is the sacred ground trodden and retrodden in the psalms, as these unknown singers pondered the meaning and personal implication of those mighty events known collectively as salvation history…They are Israel’s love song, its collective memory, its hope, and its passion.” (11)

We have all of these stories told in narrative form in our sacred text, but the Psalms recount them differently. In the Psalms, we see something new emerge as we make this enormous shift from community to the individual…we see emotions become the language of personal religious experiences.  Our psalm for today was thought to have been written down after the Babylonian exile.  What happened was that the Babylonians came in and conquered the land that God had given them. The Babylonians scattered the people and so this people whose very identity was connected to their land and to the idea that God lived in the temple on their land began to rethink everything. Without the presence of the temple, the Psalmist struggles with the idea that God is no longer with the people; that God is absent. The Psalmist may have taken for granted God’s visible presence in the temple that he could see on a daily basis before the exile.  Without this visual reminder, there is a new emotion emerging, a longing to feel a sense of God’s presence.  A deep desire to be close to God again.

It is with this history in mind that we hear the words fresh and new, “As the deer longs for running water, so my soul longs for you, my God! My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

The reciting of the Psalms was a very important part of worship in early Christianity because these were the words that Jesus would have recited and the people of the first church wanted to feel connected to him after his death and resurrection.  We see evidence of Jesus reciting the words of the Psalms in the 3 gospels Mathew, Mark and Luke where Jesus recites Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” or in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” from Psalm 31:5.  Jesus had the words of the Psalms printed on his heart so that in his moments of deepest suffering these were the words that bubbled up as a way to express his own emotions in the moment while transcending the moment to remain connected to the communal experience of his people.

Jesus might have even used the words of our Psalm today, “Why are you cast down O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? I will put my hope in God; for I shall again praise God.”

This refrain is used throughout Psalm 42 and Psalm 43. Orienting the Psalm during the time of exile, we can hear both the despair of God’s apparent absence, but the memory of God’s previous acts in history bringing the psalmist back from the abyss and into desiring God again…even hopeful that he will praise God in community once again. 

There is tension in this verse and maybe you have experienced this in your own life.  The emotions of living in a time of experiencing God’s absence in the horizontal world is held in tension with recognition that as God’s people we also live in the vertical space of the Kingdom of God that gives us solid ground on which to hope that this feeling of God’s absence is not our full experience.

While this Psalmist soul is downcast, he is also experiencing the taunts of his enemy.  He writes that his enemy asks him, “Where is his God?” One commentator writes that his enemy is himself. It is his own internal struggle with faith and his external struggle with faithlessness that is his enemy.  I think this brings the Psalm to a new level of appreciation because I think it is a part of human nature to have this internal battle going on when life has not gone as planned. 

So, how does this Psalmist shift from despair to hope?  Let’s hear verse 8, “By day the Lord commands steadfast love, and at night God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”  Sounds like a verse that the Benedictine Monks might use during their nightwatch! I love the idea that God’s song is with me in the night.  Gives me images of going to sleep reciting or chanting the psalms or that the psalmist wakes up in the night chanting the psalms.

What this verse is reminding us is that God’s love is steadfast.  In the Hebrew, this word is Hesed which does not have an equivalent in English.  Hesed is used 250x’s in the Hebrew Bible and ½ of those times, you find it in the Psalms. The root of Hesed means to bow ones head towards another in covenantal relationship. Sometimes in the Hebrew bible, Hesed is translated as faithfulness, but it is a faithfulness out of generosity and not out of obligation.  Hesed is translated as loyalty which embodies mercy. You can think about it like this…in covenantal relationship there are rights and responsibilities for both parties.  But in the case of a covenantal relationship between humans and God, God is hesed. God’s character is a generous faithfulness and God’s loyalty is full of mercy.  So, we as the other party in the covenantal relationship can find a sense of safety and rest in the relationship because God does not just offer or promise Hesed; God is hesed. No matter what happens God faithfulness is generous towards us.  No matter where we find ourselves God remains mercifully loyal.

So, when the part of us who doubts cries out, “Where is your God?” The other part of us can respond, “By day the Lord is faithfully present and at night God’s song is with me.”

These words can ring true in our own hearts but they also connect us across time and space to words memorized, prayed, spoken, sung and chanted. Cynthia Bourgeault writes that the words of the Psalm “became the chief building blocks through which anamnesis, living memory, was attained and maintained.” 

In the rule of St. Benedict, their days are structured around work and prayer.  It is here nestled within the regular times of prayer that the Divine Office makes its debut.  The Divine Office is the call to prayer and psalmody at regular intervals around the clock.  In strict Benedictine monasteries the full 150 psalms are heard over the course of each week.  All of these times of prayer and psalmody do not make for an efficient workday by today’s standards, but what it calls them to do is to live along a horizontal timeline which is our human understanding of time during our 24 hour day and to live along a vertical timeline which is that anamnesis or connection to living memory of the eternal now. These regular times of prayer are a way of waking up when we have fallen asleep consumed by horizontal living.  It reminds us of Ephesians 5:14 where Paul writes, “Wake up, you who are sleeping. Rise from the dead and Christ will give you light!”

My good friend decided that she drifted away from vertical awareness during the day because she was so consumed with caring for her ministry and her family, so what she did was set a timer on her phone that chimed every few hours throughout daylight hours.  When the chime went off, her spirit awakened to God’s presence; That God is a very present help in times of trouble and this is her way of thirsting for the living God of refreshing herself throughout the day.

Maybe, every time you eat a chip you will pause to remember the presence of God.  This would be a really good signal for my son who loves salty snacks.  As a child, he called chips CHOOCHES and we giggled every time.

Today, I want to invite you to consider how you might live both horizontally in today’s world on a very human timeline AND live vertically connected to the Kingdom of God that is present now and has a living history that flows across space and time. Another way to ask this question is to chant the words of the Psalm until you feel its meaning for your life, “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

What does it mean to take Refuge?

How many of you have asked the question at some point in your life, “Where is God in real times of trouble?”  or “How do I take refuge in God?” In Psalm 46, the Psalmist writes 3 times that God is our refuge. In the very first line, we read, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Then in verse 7, the writer says, “The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Lastly in verse 11, the psalmist ends his writing saying, “The Lord of host is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Taking refuge in God begins with finding a place of safety.  In the book I just co-authored with my friend Pema, one of the participants in our study reflected on the meditation practice we taught her.  In the meditation, you repeat the words, “I take refuge or I take safe direction.”  So in one of her daily posts she wrote something that has really stuck with me. She wrote that in all her years of attending a Christian church that she did not remember an emphasis on God as a place of safety and that no one had ever talked about what it meant to take refuge in God.

For me, taking refuge in God is a part of Christian Centering prayer which some of us are practicing during this season of Lent.  I find that I have to sense that I am safe before I am able to find a sense of rest in God’s presence. Jane K Ferguson writes about centering prayer in the book Contemplative Practices in Action. She writes, “The essence of desert spirituality is expressed by the term hesychia, the Greek word for rest as well as stillness or silence in prayer. This rest has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of intense daily struggle.”

The practice of Centering prayer invites us to daily rest our awareness on a loving presence or the presence of the divine. We don’t have to retreat away from the chaos of life, all we have to do is turn inward and open our awareness.  It is there when our minds are directed to the awareness of God’s presence that we find that God is not absent, but God is very present and a real help in times of trouble. Our minds have this amazing ability to pay attention to the presence of God, but our minds also get very distracted by planning, creating, remembering and so we forget the presence of God. It’s almost like I can hear God saying to me when my thoughts have wandered off from resting in God’s presence, “Amber, Still your mind! Know me!” That makes me smile and all of a sudden I am back to resting in God’s presence.

And these words sound very similar to our Psalm for today. Now, We are somewhat familiar with Psalm 46 from the beautiful words that we sang this morning but the very melodic tune  takes away from how verse 10 is actually meant to be read.  It should be read in a way that asks you to snap to attention to drop whatever is distracting you and focus on God. In the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh’s reading, this verse should sound like “Stop! Desist! Realize that I am God!” So that really changes how this verse sounds in our minds!  Be still! Know! I am God!

We are in the season of Lent. We may think of Lent as a time of self-denial or a time of deepening our spiritual practice and these are all good things, but this season I am challenging us to think about Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. Lent is a time to consider the many words found in the psalms that talk about the complex human experience. When we open the Psalms, we find words about human struggle, feelings of abandonment, remorse, cries for justice, and finding refuge in God. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal, but also very communal in how it wrestles with what it means to live life in relationship to God, human beings, and all God’s creation. There is a connection point across generations because if you are feeling something and wondering if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms, you will find that you are not alone.

Our Psalm for today, Psalm 46, falls into three sections. First, the psalmist talks about the earth. In this Psalm the writer is frightened that the earth is falling into total chaos.  The mountains are shaking and the waters are roaring. To the writers and the first readers of this text, there was much fear when the mountains or the foundations of the earth began to shake.  There was much fear when the waters which are the source of life acted in destructive ways.  Today, we might not even take shelter during an earthquake because we know what is happening. We might not even make preparations when a hurricane is coming our way because we know it is just a category 1.  It was understood that God created and gave order to the earth and so if the earth is descending into chaos and disorder then the logical conclusion was that God was no longer present.

You can imagine the people crying out, “Where is God in our time of trouble.” We can imagine the people filled with anxiety, worry, fear and running around spreading their anxiety to anyone who might listen.  In the midst of their inner and outer chaos, we hear God’s voice, “Be Still! Know! I am God!”

Then, if you jump down several verses, you will see that the writer shifts from the chaos of the earth to political chaos, but the writer uses similar words. Nations are in an uproar; Kingdoms are tottering. Roaring and shaking just like the mountains and the waters.  The writer is speaking about another effort that is happening in the political world to try to undo God’s dream for our world. 

If the Nations and Kingdoms are falling into chaos and disorder, then you can imagine the people asking, “Where is God in our time of trouble?” We can imagine the people filled with anxiety, worry, fear and running around spreading their anxiety to anyone who might listen.  In the midst of their inner and outer chaos, we hear God’s voice, “Be Still! Know! I am God!”

But look back up to the words we skipped over…Nestled right in the middle, right in the heart of the text, we hear about a place where the water is not roaring, but the rivers and streams are moving gently. The water is nourishing the land and people. The water is bringing joy. The Kingdom is not shaking or tottering, but remains steady, unmoved.  I was reminded by a good friend Ngakpa Dawa Norbu that this city sounds like when Jesus spoke about building our house upon the rock. Remember the words he used. He said the winds blew and the rain fell and the floods came, but the house did not fall. 

To the people who are asking, “Where is God?” The answer comes that God is the one working in the midst of the chaos of the earth in the midst of the Nations in uproar. It is no coincidence that the writer placed these words right at the center of the text; right at the heart of the passage.

God is very present. God is with us. Emmanuel. And what is God doing?  God is loving all of the people. God is loving the people by destroying the tools used for war. Our text reads, “God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with Fire.”  God is not punishing the people, but taking away their ability to hurt one another.

So, let’s come back to our first question, “what does it mean that God is our refuge?”  One way to think about it is that we as God’s people are invited to recognize that God is present with us no matter where we find ourselves.  And that when we are aware of God’s presence that we find a sense of safety…that no matter what happens with the earth or in the political world that we can find that place at the center of our beings that helps us calm down and rest. Remember that when we had come to the end of our road in the discernment process and voted 7 to 7 which meant that all of that work and all of your diligence did not amount to a decision. When we cried out “Where is God?”  God reminded us through the Christmas season that God is with us. Emmanuel. And that this God would is with us is Love. That love is at the center of our lives. That is where we take refuge.  God is not out away from the chaos, away from the political destruction, God is in the midst of the tornado, in the midst of the earthquake, in the midst of the hurricane, in the midst of Russia and Ukraine. And we can take refuge in God in love and this love will conquer our fear. 

If finding love at the center of our lives is how we take refuge, then we must ask what do we do when we are like the people in our Psalm and our anxieties are high, when our fear is overwhelming, when all around us is in chaos.  Well, it is here where Jesus’ words about building our house upon the rock fills out this picture.  Before Jesus talks about the house being built on the rock, he tells us how we contribute to this city that is unmoved and unshaken.  Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock.  So, what do we do? We continue following the path of Jesus.  We read his words and we act upon our understanding of his words. We trust that this path is the path to peace.

But there is also something about Love conquering our fear that we now understand more about why fear and love does not mix. They are actually two different operating systems and we have a choice of which operating system we want to live out of. Our fear response is a sympathetic nervous system response that we must act quickly to fight, flight or freeze. Fear is a way to protect us from danger.   But love is a parasympathetic response that takes a while to kick into gear. When we live in fear, we live in an operating system that cannot seek understanding or work in loving ways.  But when we take a moment to get centered as in the practice of centering prayer, we give ourselves the gift of time so that we can shift into the operating system of love. Love works for understanding, seeks reconciliation, and has no room for the fear response. 

God is love and love is a very present help in trouble. 

I must confess that I never really thought about how God is my refuge. I remember singing songs and hearing the words especially from this Psalm but not really understanding what it meant to take refuge in God.  It wasn’t until I was using the words on a daily basis in my time of meditation that I became curious developing my own understanding.

As I did the meditation, I focused on taking refuge in  God, Jesus and the Spirit.

So to say I take refuge in God is to take refuge in God as my Creator and since God is love and it is through God’s love that I live and move and have my being.  Taking refuge in Jesus means that I see in Jesus the word of God made flesh. Jesus is my teacher and my healer; I take refuge in following Jesus and in following Jesus my house is built on the rock. It is steady and stable and I find a sense of safety.  Here is where I want to add the third aspect of what it means to take refuge. When I said that I take refuge in the spirit, I mean that there is a community of saints that the spirit draws us together to guide, provide wisdom and encouragement and comfort. There is a community of people in this city that is unmoved.  There is a community of people in this city whose water provides joy.  There is a community of people who are building their own houses on the rock and that contributes to safety, the people contribute to everyone’s ability to trust the path we are on, and the people contribute to the wellbeing of the community as a whole through encouragement to continue to the safety and the trust in the path that we are on…the path that will help us find rest for our souls.

Taking refuge in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is to come back to center and find love to be the source of my strength and an ever-present help in times of trouble.

So, my friends.  God says, “Be Still!” Cast all your cares upon God. Remove the things that are distracting you from being aware that God is at the center of everything…that love is your center.

God says, “Know!” Turn your attention to God’s presence. Rest in God’s love. Dedicate time to creating an intimate relationship with the Divine.

God says, “I am God!”  This is where I reside.  Right in the midst of the shaking mountains and the roaring seas.

This needs a trigger warning

February was a time to bring our awareness to Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence. As I followed the lectionary text in choosing our passages for each Sunday, I just could not make it fit, but as I studied our sacred text for today, the message hit me in the face.  For the longest time, Domestic and Intimate partner violence was considered a women’s issue, but this is not a women’s issue.  This is a human issue and if it is a human issue then it is something that we should talk about openly in the church.  So, today is our attempt to unsilenced the voices not heard in our sacred text and to create room and space for important conversations.

We have just entered the season of Lent. We may think of Lent as a time of self-denial or a time of deepening our spiritual practice and these are all good things, but this season I want us to think about Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. The more I dug into our sacred text for today, the more I realized walking the ancient path to find rest for our souls involves some very difficult practices. Lent is a time to consider the many words found in the psalms that talk about human struggle, feelings of abandonment, remorse, cries for justice, and finding refuge in God. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal and if you are feeling something and wanting to know if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms you will find that you are not alone.

In our Psalm for today, Psalm 51, the writer of this prayer is coming to God with deep remorse for a wrong he has committed.  He is asking God to re-create him.  One commentator asked us to imagine the writer keeling naked, laid bare before the one who sees and knows all things. I cannot imagine a more vulnerable and intimate picture.

So who is this writer?  This Psalm connects us to the story of King David, Bathsheba and her husband Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 & 12. The story goes that King David, a man of power and privilege, saw the most beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on a roof top.  King David had to have her, but he became aware that she was married to a very faithful soldier of his named Uriah. This did not stop King David from using his power and privilege to take Bathsheba to bed.

The situation only gets worse. Bathsheba sends word that she is pregnant. King David could have cried out to God at this point and repented of this evil that he committed against Bathsheba and against God, but instead he tried to cover up what happened by bringing Uriah back from the battle to spend time with his wife.  Uriah was a good man though. He . would not enjoy the company of his wife while his men were sleeping out in open fields. King David even tried to get him drunk but Uriah would not sleep with his wife and so King David was unsuccessful in his cover up. King David decided to put Uriah back on the battlefield and to place him in the hardest fighting right at the forefront so that “he might be struck down and die.” And Uriah did die. As soon as her time of mourning was completed, King David took Bathsheba to be his wife and she bore him a son. 

Maybe no one else was suspicious of this series of events or maybe no one else was let in on David’s secret, but God saw what David did and how David sinned in his heart and committed sins in his actions.  So, God sent a man named Nathan to David to let him know that God saw what he did.  Nathan tells David that one of the consequences of his actions is that “the sword shall never depart from your house.” He continues, “For you did it secretly, but I (God) will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”  And the child that Bathsheba gave birth to struggled to survive and as the child suffered David fasted and wept and prayed. On the seventh day, the child died.

The words of our psalm today are from a man who is caught in his wrongdoing and pleading for the life of his son. We can imagine that David felt embarrassed, dirty, unclean, and a deep bone crushing sense of sorrow for what he did.  Listen to these words with new ears, “Blot out my transgression. For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned so that you are justified in your sentence. Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your holy spirit from me!”

Then, we hear him proclaim the character of God as the basis for his re-creation. King David knows that there is nothing he can do to make amends at this point, but that he needs God to work a miracle, so he is relying what he knows about God to be the source and strength of his re-creation. He says that God’s character is one of steadfast love. God has abundant mercy. He writes that God has the power to deliver him by giving him a clean heart and new and right spirit so that he might be restored to the joy of his salvation.

Then, David tells us in very intimate words of how God is going to restore him. He writes, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow..let the bones that you have crushed rejoice!”

This Psalm is the cry of a man who is desperate for God.  This is a very vulnerable Psalm where we hear he knows that he has done wrong and yet he is putting himself out there trusting that it is not in God’s character to reject him.  The picture of a naked and desperate man crying out to God is very intimate but so is the imagery of God washing and cleaning and purifying David. 

This is one picture of the complex human experience…the raw feelings of a man caught in his secret wrongdoings who now sees what is happening to his child as punishment for doing evil in God’s sight. Whether we agree or not with his theology, this is how he is feeling.

He feels this so deeply that he writes in verse 5 that he was born guilty. He writes that he was a sinner in his mother’s womb. 

I found this point worth some consideration.  At first my mind went to the idea of original sin that we are all born sinners and must be saved.  But I am not one who buys into all of the points of original sin because I believe the scriptures that say that when God created us that God created us in God’s image. Then God saw which to me means intimately knew humanity and called us good.

So, what insight might we gain from the psalmist?  I think it is interesting to think about all the systems that are in place that we are born into that are unjust, immoral and not following the dream of God for our world.  Think about systemic racism that I as a white women have to train myself to become aware of because it is in the water that I drink and the air that I breathe.  Think about the unjust justice system that treats the guilty rich who can afford good lawyers better than the poor who are innocent. 

We are born into these systems and many more and so I can agree with David’s statement that we are born guilty even though it is not our fault, we did not create the system, and sometimes we are not even knowledgeable that the system is in place and that we are participating in it.

But the good news is that God’s love is more powerful than the webs we are born into or the in David’s case the webs that we create. It is God’s love that has the power not only to clean one person’s heart but to give a heart transplant to an entire community as in Ezekiel 36. 

It is God’s love that saves us from seeing ourselves as totally depraved.  It is God’s love that saves us from having one incident in life color our entire lives. It is hard to feel good about King David in this moment because we have 2 other characters in this story that did not have a voice that did not have a psalm recorded in our sacred text.  But today, we can begin to correct that.

Let’s hear a modern day true story of one man and one woman and as I tell the story, I will insert the way that I think her psalm might sound.

In 2016 there was a TED talk given by a woman named Thordis and a man named Tom. Watch it here or read on…

The Title of this TED Talk was Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation. Before you hear this story, know that there is no right or wrong way to heal from intimate violence. Thordis recognizes the privilege she has in being able to talk about what happened without suffering extreme consequences like some women experience around the world.  This is not a formula that works for everyone for healing. This is just the story of 2 wounded people. Today, I invite you to consider the words of the Psalmist as you hear this story.

Their story begins with a teenage boy named Tom traveling from his homeland of Australia to live and study in Iceland.  There he meets a teenage girl named Thordis and they begin a young romance.  Tom is struggling with being homesick and Thordis seems to help him adjust to life in Iceland.  Thordis is enamored with Tom and they meet for lunches just so they can hold hands.  Well, one night there is a winter dance and on that night Thordis decides to try alcohol for the first time.  She ends up incredible sick and her knight and shining armor, Tom, takes her home.  It is there in her own bed that she wakes up to blinding pain as Tom lies on top of her. She struggles but realizes that her body is still paralyzed by the alcohol.  She feels like her body is being torn in two pieces. And while this is happening, she listens to the sound of her clock and counts 7,200 seconds until her nightmare is over.  Tom leaves and does not contact her again. 

“Oh, Lord. How long must I wait for your deliverance? Do you not hear the cry of my heart or see me in my terror. It has been 7,200 seconds since I have felt your presence. It has been 7,200 seconds since I trusted in your deliverance. Dare I cry out one last time…Deliver me from bloodshed, O God.”

In this TED talk, Tom confesses that he felt hollow inside but did not see his deed for what it was.  He saw himself as a good friend, a loved son, a surfer, and a youth worker.  He saw himself as a good person and not someone who could be capable of such evil.  He says that he disavowed the truth and claimed that he was just being intimate with his girlfriend and that it was not rape.  The word rape seemed like a forbidden concept even to consider and so he tied a rock to the memories and they sunk in deep.  He describes the next 9 years as running from his guilt and denying the pain he caused Thordis.  He distracted himself with substances abuse and thrill seeking.  He could not stay still or get silent.  What he did not consciously know at the time was that he was running from the weight of the responsibility of owning his actions.

Thordis shares the shame she felt, the shame that our culture puts on women. She was raised to believe that girls are raped for a reason: There skirts are too short, their smile to wide and their breath smelled of alcohol.  And she was guilty of all of these things. She spent years crying and 9 years later was headed for a nervous breakdown.  She felt hatred and anger so intensely but not knowing where to direct her pain, she took it out on herself. One day, she went to a coffee shop and began to journal. She wrote words calling for revenge, but by the time she finished she wrote, “I want to find forgiveness.” She wanted rest for her soul.

“My tears fill the ocean and my anger like lava threatening to burst from the mountaintop. May my enemy be devoured by your flames and the life he possess be torn from him piece by piece. But no Lord. Do not let my heart reflect his selfishness.  Instead, let truth ring from my inmost being and let forgiveness be the healing balm that I seek.”

So, she sent a letter to Tom not expecting a letter in return.  But she received a letter from him. The letter was raw and humble confessing what he had done to her and how he felt imprisoned by his guilt. They spent the next 8 years corresponding in brutal honesty. 16 years after that painful night, Thordis invited Tom to join her in South Africa for 1 week.  Tom says that the work down in South Africa around listening to the horrors experienced by the people in an effort to bring about healing and reconciliation proved to be a powerful place to work on their own healing.  He describes this experience as complete vulnerability that included tears, anger, sitting in times where no words would help, and surprise in liberating laughter. Tom was surprised that he did not feel crushed by the weight of owning his sin. He says the experience offered him the opportunity to see that one action does not possess the entirety of who he is.  One action does not constitute the sum of who he is.

Thordis talks about the time in South Africa as rough and raw, but that she left with a Victorious feeling that light had triumphed over darkness. Now they write and speak about their story..their story that did not allow them to dehumanize each other as victim, less than or perpetrator, monster.

Thordis might write her Psalm with these words, “We have known the truth and the truth has set us free. Rumi’s words ring true, ‘The wound is the place the light enters you.’”

Together, Tom and Thordis might end their Psalm with “How beautiful are the feet who walk the ancient path and find rest for their souls.”

Tom and Thordis spent 16+ years wrestling until they found rest for their souls.  Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and King David only started down the good path in this Psalm. The ancient path that we are called to walk this season involves getting really honest, stepping out of our comfort zone into a place of vulnerability, working for reconciliation in a way that is right for you.  David ends the Psalm with verse 17 which is the original ending. He writes, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

The invitation today is to shift from needing to be protective, from needing to feel like you have it all together, from running away from pain…to use your time of prayer, your time of journaling, your time reading the psalms to continue the work of the ancestors of our faith in finding your voice echoed through their words or by writing new words that speak the truth in your inmost being.

We must acknowledge that our sacred text for today is caught in the system of patriarchy. This psalm gives voice to the male in power while neglecting the voice of the powerless. But we can rewrite that story. Through Thordis, we can begin to hear glimmers of the voice of Bathsheba so that we might give her a voice in the narrative and work for justice in this first seemingly small but important step.

Domestic and Intimate partner violence affects 1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men, and 1 in 3 teens. If you would like to learn how to care for survivors, please contact my dear friend Rev. Courtney Armento with Whole Disciples. www.thresholdsoffthesoul.org

The Golden Rule

The first week of every February is World InterFaith Harmony week.  In 2010, King Abdullah II of Jordan presented the idea of celebrating World Interfaith Harmony Week to the United Nations General Assembly.  He said, “In his speech King Abdulla said, “It is [also] essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is, humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbour; to love the good and neighbour. This week, my delegation, with the support of our friends on every continent, will introduce a draft resolution for an annual World Interfaith Harmony Week. What we are proposing is a special week, during which the world’s people, in their own places of worship, could express the teachings of their own faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace. I hope this resolution will have your support.”

One of the beautiful things that the World Interfaith Harmony week invites the major world religions to consider is to step down from the place where we think that we own God or that ours is the only path to God and instead stand shoulder to shoulder ministering in a way that we find commonality…we are unified by the golden rule.  Christianity is not the source or sole owner of the idea that we must do unto others as we would have them do to us, but that this is a shared idea between religious traditions.  In fact, it is said that Confucius was the first to write Do unto Others as you would have them do unto you.  In Buddhism, we hear Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. In Judaism, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.” In Islam, we read, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” In Hinduism, we read, “This is the sum of duty. Do not do unto others that which would cause pain unto you.”

In our text for this Sunday (Luke 6: 27-38) , we read that Jesus called us to embody this way of living and to go even deeper by loving our enemy.  Jesus words are tough for anyone to hear because they focus on our complex human relationships, but the way of Jesus is relational at its heart. Its about our relationship with God, ourselves and each other.  So to follow Jesus down this path invites us into a transformative process where we don’t just go through the motions of reconciliation with our enemies, but we actually become people who want the best for our enemies. But where we all begin is with a first step and where we all continue is in taking the next step. We don’t have to see the whole staircase or know where we ultimately are headed, but no matter where we find ourselves are invited to take the next step. We are in a sermon series titled Following Jesus and in this study my hope is that we gain clarity on what is our next right and loving step in following Jesus…

The section of our text this morning begins at the place where we read last week. The text tells us that Jesus came down and joined the people “on a level place.”  What I hear is that Jesus is not only moving locations, but that Luke is inviting us to consider how Jesus has come from God to the earth and is now coming down from a high place to meet them, stand shoulder to shoulder with them, ministering with them from a place of empathy, solidarity, and compassion.  Before Jesus spoke the Beatitudes and the Woeitudes, the text read that Jesus raised his eyes upon the disciples and began to speak.  But in our text today, Jesus’ includes all who would listen saying, “But I say to you that listen Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

In this section of Jesus’ teaching, Jesus is concerned about power. He is concerned about the very natural and human inclination to seek revenge through violence, language and dominating our enemies. And so he gives us three scenarios to consider. 

In this first scenario, Jesus says if you are struck on the cheek offer your other cheek .  In this scenario, your enemy is really wanting to humiliate you by slapping you with the back of his hand, to put you in your place. This situation is not primarily about physical violence.  This type of slap to the face would have been a back handed and so then if you turn your face, they cannot slap you again, but are challenged to punch you with their fist.  Now a punch with a fist was reserved for someone of equal importance.  Isn’t that creative! So turning the other cheek is a way of saying,

“I invite you to see what you are doing to the image of God that is standing right in front of you and if you want to continue to hit me, you are going to have to hit me with your full fist….as equals.”

In the next scenario, Jesus invites us to consider how we respond when someone in power treats you in an unjust manner. In the time of Jesus, a wealthy landowner could take a poor peasant who had gotten into debt to court and ask for the person’s outer garment for the day, but in the Hebrew bible in Exodus 22:26 God commands that if a man takes another man’s cloak as a pledge, the cloak must be given back before nightfall so that he can have something to sleep in.  This is because the outer garment is used to protect from the cold, to protect the skin from the sun, and used as a blanket or for a pillow at night. 

But in this case, Jesus says use the system to your advantage. So, if the person in power asks for your coat, give them your undergarments as well.  In this day and time, it was not shameful for a person to be naked, but it was shameful for people to look at a naked person.  At the heart of the matter, the naked one is not seeking revenge, but is inviting this powerful person to face what this practice does to people. And in seeing, he is invited to change his ways.

So standing there in the courtroom naked, exposes the powerful person’s lack of kindness to the image of God standing in front of them and invites them to reconcile as equals. 

In the last scenario, Jesus is inviting us to consider debt slavery. In the Old Testament law, God instructs his people that it is okay to take out and give loans, but only under the condition that no one should be in debt or in need for very long. In Deuteronomy 15, we read that God declares that every seven years, all debts are cancelled.

Why does Jesus ask us to lend without repayment?  It’s because we are to trust that God’s kingdom is a kingdom of abundance and that when we lend in this manner that we are imitating our God who is gracious, kind, slow to anger and abundantly generous. Jesus invites us to check our heart and instead of demanding reciprocal generosity that we offer abundant generosity in a way that is wise and discerning of not creating a power structure between the lender and the borrower, but creating a structure that promotes both parties as equals. 

Chad and I have figured out a way that helps us give abundantly while also not feeling used or abused for our generosity. When someone comes to the church in need, Chad will sit down with that individual and treat them as equals by asking them how much they can pitch in to meet their need, then we give an equal amount and work with this person to creatively come up with the rest of the money through their extended family or other organizations. I’m not saying this is a perfect situation, but it is one that offers both parties a way to participate in solving the problem in a way that says,

“I honor the image of the divine that stands in front of me and invite you to work with me as equals.”

So, the greater question for me is…how do we become people who participate in the active, creative, and transforming ways of the Kingdom of God? How do shift from our natural tendency for revenge and instead work for reconciliation? How do we recognize our own struggle with power and create a safer space of equality?

I think we can use Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew to help us understand.  In the Gospel of Matthew after the beatitudes, Jesus goes into a series of teachings that follow this pattern, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”  Here are a few of these sayings, “You have heard it said ‘You shall not murder’ but I say that if you are angry in your heart then you will be liable for judgement.” “You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth’ for a tooth, but I say do not resist an evil doer.”  He goes on to say “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”  In each of these scenarios, Jesus asks us to notice the anger that arises when someone slaps us in the face or disrespects us or treats us unjustly. Once we notice the anger, then we have the choice to follow our natural inclination to hit back or spew words of hate or we can use the energy of our anger to come up with a creative way for reconciliation.  Jesus does not ask us to become doormats that people walk all over nor does Jesus condone violence in our hearts, but there is a third way that Jesus invites us to explore.  A way that is consistent with the golden rule.

Today, we can understand it at an even deeper level. According to two German psychologists, evolution has wired our minds to think that revenge will make us feel better. But the research shows that revenge does not make us feel better instead it binds us to the hurt that we felt. 

What they are learning is that revenge actually is like a cord that connects us to the person and situation that did us wrong. What keeps this cord strong is our mind. When we seek revenge and actually engage in acts that are vengeful, the research shows that we are more likely to ruminate over the situation. We are more likely to strengthen the neural connection between us, the situation, and the person who did us wrong. But if we let it go, walk away or creatively work for reconciliation, we actually cut the cord that binds us to the hurt. We write a new story that honors our hurt while giving us a way to love our enemy.

As profound as the stories are that Jesus gives us, there are other stories. Stories of people from all corners of the world. Stories of people from different religious traditions that are loving their enemy by creatively working for reconciliation.

The New Internationalist website is full of these stories.  I came across an article titled, “Meet the Peacemakers.”

Today, I would like for you to meet Omaid (Omeed) Sharifi (Share- ifee). Sharifi is an artist who grew up in Afghanistan. He was confused by his countries idea of Hero because all the pictures of Heros were men with guns.  Sharifi had a different idea about who the true heroes are, so he co-founded the Artlords Collective to start projecting a nonviolent, hopeful message for their battle-scarred country.  The Everyday Heroes project depicted Kabul’s municipal workers who get up at 5am to sweep the streets of the city and then they expanded the project to include nurses, teachers, independent journalists who are peaceful, hardworking, and not corrupt. In another project, they started reaching out into the community by offer space that was a paint by number experience so that people who had never held a paintbrush before could participate in changing the narrative of war to peace through art. Omaid Sharifi says, “We use art to say we are more than war. We have a history. We have creative minds. We have things worth preserving.”  They are asking those in power including the United States to see the Image of God in them and work with them as equals.

Meet Bush-ra Awad and Robi Damelin.  Bushra Awad is a Palestinian mother whose teenage son was killed by Israeli soldiers.  After her son’s death, she shut herself away for three years consumed by grief and thoughts of revenge. But her friend new that there was a better way. So her friend orchestrated a meeting with Robi Dame-lin an Israeli mother whose 28 year old son was killed by a Palestinian sniper.  The intense pain these mother’s shared convinced Awad to join Damelin and campaign to end the bloodshed.  And so they both joined the Parent’s Circle which is an organization of bereaved parents from either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This group works to redirect the pain of the parents loss, the energy of their anger, the power of revenge and to channel is creatively into the basis for hope. The Circle believes that any political solution relies on human rights for all and the establishment of two states for two peoples. The group is meeting each other through the human experience of grief & suffering, seeing the image of God in each other, and recognizing that peace is possible when they work together with one voice.

Now, let’s bring this a little closer to home. I have a dear friend who was in an unhealthy relationship with a man. She recognized it was unhealthy but was fearful of what he would do if she tried to leave.  So, she stayed trying to show him love but inviting him to see how his ways were hurting her and hurting their relationship. She also stayed with the hope that he would one day see her for the person God created her to be which is a strong, creative, thoughtful, and encouraging leader.  But over the course of 2 years, he continued to write a story about her that was untrue and anytime she would invite him to see her eye-to-eye, he would get angry and use his language to hurt her.  And so after 2 years, she broke up with him.  She asked him to respect her decision and not to contact her unless his therapist wanted to meet with both of them for mutual healing.  Well, they broke up 3 weeks ago and he continues to call, text and send emails.  Instead of blocking him which she felt like was shaming him and would not lead to his growth, she decided to change his name on her phone.  Now, when he calls, texts or emails, the name that pops up is “Pray for Him.”  She has taken our scripture for today seriously and loved her enemy, prayed for her enemy, and she has a pure heart that only wants the best for her enemy. 

Through all of these stories, we have heard the golden rule being applied in creative ways to very difficult situations. Huston Smith who was considered the most eloquent and accessible contemporary authority on the history of religions said in an interview that in the golden rule we find that , “A sound man’s heart is not shut within itself, but it’s open to the hearts of others. If it is sincere enough, it will feel the heartbeats of others as if they were its own.”

And Jesus said to all who would listen…Love your enemy… feel the heartbeat of your enemy as if it were our own.

A Level Field

Vlad Sokhin started an organization called warm waters that focuses on climate change that is affecting nations bordering the pacific ocean. He reported that in the Island Nation of Oceania he has seen whole villages destroyed by high winds and storm surges. Some people have already been displaced and some have lost their lives.  Tuvalu the 4th smallest nation on earth with just under 11,000 people are watching the sea level rise and huge storms are dessimating their ways of life.  Already they have limited space and even that space is beginning to flood and scientists are predicting that this country will one day become uninhabitable.  The rising sea levels are not only shrinking the land size, but it is also cutting off access to local drinking water.  So, 1/5 of the population in this area has already left to seek refuge on larger islands. The Island Nation of Kirubus found a creative solution for their people. The government bought land in Fiji to relocate their people if the sea levels rise to the point that the land completely submerges. As great as this idea is the reality is that if they move to Fiji they will have no rights…no rights to vote…they will always be seen as immigrants and they will be at a high risk of losing their national identity. 

Vlad Sokhin pointed out that this will become a global problem because when resources of land, food and water become limited conflict will arise.

Bringing this a little closer to home, scientists predict that within a century 414 US Cities will be affected by rising sea levels.

Last year, the Biden Administration looked at what is happening regarding climate change and migration and came out with their first report in October of 2021. This report did not offer any solutions or calls to action, but it was the first report which recognized the problem.  The world is also raising it’s eyes to look at the problem, but no one is in agreement on what to call the people who are displaced by climate change. They do not fit the current definition of refugee, so they are a people with no home and no name.

This is a group that I see Jesus speaking about in the beatitudes. I think we would agree that it is to this group of people that God’s turns God’s loving eyes. And in our text this morning, we heard that Jesus raises his eyes and tells his disciples that to follow Jesus we must see life differently. But where we all begin is with a first step and where we all continue is in taking the next step. We don’t have to see the whole staircase or know where we ultimately are headed, but we must take the next step. We are in a sermon series titled Following Jesus and in this study my hope is that we gain clarity on what is our next right and loving step in following Jesus…

Our text this morning begins by telling us that Jesus came down and joined the people “on a level place.”  I love how this sets up not only a visual image, but it also invites us to pause and reflect. What I hear is that Jesus is not only moving locations, but that Luke is telling us that Jesus is speaking on their level and meeting their very human need for healing.  Further reflection for disciples today might invite us to consider how Jesus has come from God to the earth and is now coming down from a high place to meet them, stand shoulder to shoulder with them, ministering with them from a place of empathy, solidarity, and compassion.  Now, what we know about the people is that the people have come from all over to hear him teach and to be healed.

But what is interesting about this text is that Luke gives us words that create a beautiful image to tell us that this teaching of the beatitudes was not directed at the larger group of people  although those in close proximity to him might have overheard him begin to speak. His message was for his disciples.  The text says, “And he raised his eyes towards his disciples.” and began saying, “blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…blessed are you who weep…blessed are you who work for peace and are hated by both sides.” 

And Jesus raising his eyes invites us to pause and reflect on where we might have heard something similar before. Jesus is giving his disciples the reminder that God’s loving eyes are upon those who have no home, those who have no food or water, those who have no name. I like to think that the disciples would have been reminded of the story of Hagar.  Hagar was running away from home. She was forced to flee from male protection, food, water and shelter so that she might be free from the oppressive situation that she found herself in with Abraham and Sarah and God saw her and provided her with water and brought her to safety. And Hagar named God El Roi, “The God who sees.” Yet, Hagar’s name meant stranger. I think that the Good Jewish Boys that Jesus chose to be his disciples would have remembered this story.

And this presents us with the opportunity to pause and reflect. Jesus in this text takes that which we as his followers already know about God from the Hebrew Bible, that God sees us, and Jesus takes it to the next level actually becoming human…seeing, experiencing, empathizing, and extending compassion to those on the margins; to those who are fleeing; to those who have no name.

In Luke’s Gospel, Luke likes to remind us that God has preferential treatment for  the stranger, the poor, the grieving, but that does not mean that Luke thinks rich people, those who are well fed, and those who laugh can’t follow Jesus, but he is reminding us that our wealth, our power and sense of control that comes from wealth isolates us from God.  Those who lack money, power and a sense of control over their lives only have God to rely upon. I think that is why Jesus said that we must come to him like little children…totally dependent upon God.  But now that our country that boasts of the most wealth, power and sense of control over our lives has experienced this pandemic, I wonder if we paused and reflected on our experience if we would be able to follow Jesus by coming down from our high place to lament what we lost. Might we experience a deeper level of empathy and compassion that would lead to advocacy for those who live with the lack of wealth, power and control their entire lives.

I wonder if we wrote our own beatitudes today what we would include post our experience of the pandemic.

Those of us who have wept and grieved the loss of loved ones, the loss of community are blessed. Those of us who have lost jobs and gone hungry are blessed. Those of us who have tried to love on people on both sides of the political divide and experienced hate by both are called blessed.  Stripped of our sense of control over our health, we are blessed. That the virus broke down the barriers of rich and poor, vaccinated and unvaccinated, healthy and unhealthy, we are blessed.  I think we are blessed because we were put in a level field where we were invited to raise our eyes and see each other.

But let’s bring it even closer to home. Our church experienced a huge disruption 6 months ago that forced us to experience a sense of disorientation. This week, during my curiosity cohort, we watched a few videos about churches who were starting businesses or not for profits. My whole body tensed because at least one of the videos did not sound like something that was legal and yet my cohort was promoting it and cheering on their creative way of bringing in more money. Then, when a cohort member spoke up wondering about the legality, the leader reminded us just to sit in wonder and curiosity about the lofty idea.  So, I could not stay silent any longer as I felt protective of this woman whose curiosity was being dismissed.  And as I spoke to my cohort about what our church was experiencing, my anger turned to my voice being choked up and my eyes filled with tears and I ended my reflection with this statement, “we cannot just prize the type of curiosity that leaves its head in the clouds. Believe me that is where I want to live. But our curiosity must extend all the way from the fun, dreamy, big idea into the details.” Now, I could have left that experience and just moved on blaming this cohort for their lack of wisdom.

This week, I met with 3 friends: one is a rabbi, one is a military chaplain’s spouse, and one is a Christian Curriculum writer. They were so generous in listening as I shared my heart and where I am at in my discouragement and misadventures in pessimism. These 3 friends know that at my best I am the most hopeful, optimistic, full of ideas person that they have ever met. But instead of challenging me to be more hopeful or telling me to dig in deeper, pray harder, instead they offered optimism. They took my burden and said let me carry that for a while. They were the idea generators. In our conversations, I began to feel restored. Now, I could have left that experience and just moved on shaming myself for my inability to do these things for myself this week.

Instead, God has given humanity the ability to reflect. Reflection allows us to pause, make meaning out of a situation, learn from our experiences, and recognize God sees us. Daniel Seigel, the author of Mindsight says Reflection is the beginning of our journey to being more compassionate people because reflection brings us to a compassionate state of mind.

As I reflected on my cohort meeting, I realized that I was triggered. In my body’s response and my emotional state, I recognized that the anger I felt was related to my grief. It had nothing to do with the videos or the cohort, but watching them touched a tender part of my heart and caused an exaggerated reaction. But after pausing to reflect, I can say it was a blessing because it helped me see what was going on inside of me. I sat with my grief for a while and realized that the people and videos in my curiosity cohort are another way that God shows that God sees me by providing a way for restoring sight to areas that I was blind. I cannot heal what I will not see.

So I brought that same type of reflection to my week’s meetings with my friends. As I reflected about my week’s meetings with my husband, I realized that I was feeling like what I expect the government of the Island Nation of Kiribus felt. They bought land and found a way to help their people and yet the people don’t want to leave their home. The people don’t want to risk losing their identity; to not be seen and heard in their new land. And so as much as the leaders of the Island Nation of Kiribus want safety and protection for their people and found a creative way, there is the emotional side that must be addressed.  There is sadness and loss. There is uncertainty and fear. As I reflected, I realized that God saw me, that Jesus raised his eyes and sent my friends to be idea generators where I was lacking, to be curious where my curiosity was starving, to be optimistic when I was pessimistic, to offer a way where I no longer saw a way. 

Today our church will take an important vote. No matter what path we decide to walk together today, we must pause to reflect on all that we have experienced over the past 6 months. If we don’t and we just pack our bags and move on, we will carry with us hurt, grief, anger, and sadness along with the good things like our values of stewardship, refuge, service, and faithful living. But guess which things in our bags will be loudest…guess which things will sit in our bodies causing dis-ease…guess which things will come out at inappropriate times and hurt new relationships that we are trying to create. 

Let us begin to name our suffering so that we bring with us wisdom, so that we bring with us humility, so that we bring with a deeper sense of empathy, so that we bring with us an unlimited source of compassion.

And so, may we come to Jesus like the people in our text today. We come to Jesus ready to hear his voice. We come to Jesus to be healed.

The Place of the 4 Piles

https://www.facebook.com/hcchouston/videos/686674079379365

Click the link above if you would like to see this story LIVE. Begin at 24:44-38

This is the story about a place. The place of the 4 piles. This is a story about a place and the people who live in that place. The people of the place of the 4 piles spent their days building the piles. All day everyday the people would put their time and energy into the building up of these piles.

Time Passed and it took a really long time, but eventually some of the piles grew.

Some of the people of the place of the 4 piles got so excited each time that a pile would grow. They would say, “Look at the growth! Look at the change! Our time and energy is meaning something is doing something.”

The people of the place of 4 piles thought that they all agreed that the way they would live their lives and work together was to build the piles, but over time some of the people in the place of the 4 piles started to ask questions. They started to wonder if there was more. They were unsettled by the piles. They started to wonder if there was a different way to live a…. different way to work together… to make meaning. There were not many people asking these questions at first but those who were asking the questions began raising their voices and some would listen. They said to the questioners, “Look, if we move the piles that would be different. They can take a different shape and that is a new reality.” And the questioners thought, “I guess.”

So the building of the piles continued.

Well, one day, one of those people who were wondering ..their hearts continued to tug…they woke up each night feeling a sense of something else…something more.

So, they woke up one day and thought I must say something!!!  So they made their way to the place of the piles and started shouting to others, but no one listened. And after awhile, they decided that they needed to peak under the piles and so they worked and worked while everyone else worked to build the piles…they worked to peak under the piles. But doing this work alone eventually the pile came crashing down. This one person realized that they could not do this on their own.

So, the next day, they came back and gathered a few and asked for help. They asked for help in peaking under the piles. The few who had gathered said, “Look, we saw you try yesterday and it crashed. And the piles we built were affected. Parts of them came crashing down too so the building that we have done, all that work has been diminished. We won’t help you peak under. All that is under there is the stuff of the piles and we all know what that looks like.”

Time passed and the building of the piles continued. And the piles started to grow again.

One day, that one person heard that there was a person at another pile who had started to peak, so they went and found them and said, “Hey! Let’s work together!” But the others said, “No! this is the way things are.”

But the two had found each other and started hearing about others. So one morning very early before the others came to the land of the 4 piles to do the work of building the piles, four of the people came together around 1 pile and they began to peak. The pile remained but they discovered a new perspective underneath it.

They began to wonder what was under the 2nd pile. Under the 2nd pile they found color and new life.

The third pile uncovered smoothly because now they had the hand of it. And underneath they found wonder and awe.

By the time they got to the 4th pile, others were starting to arrive at the land of the 4 piles for their pile building and they found all the piles in different places. The piles were still there but in their midst they saw something different.

As the people started to lift and peak under the 4th pile, many started to help in the lifting and the peaking and the pile moved and celebration emerged.

Over time, the people in the place of the 4 piles went about their life and their work slightly differently. Some continued pile building. The piles remained and they had a role. Some piles grew and others fell.

Some continued to unearth other things found under the piles. And other perspectives joined. Other colors and all sorts of new life.

It was not regular or predictable. And wonder and awe emerged and would dance and play in the place. And through it all was a sense of celebration. The celebration did not eliminate the struggle but it became part of that place. Part of the people in new and curious ways.

And so I wonder…

I wonder if you have been in the place of the 4 piles or maybe it was 2 piles or maybe it was 200 piles. I wonder what it looked like? I wonder what it felt like? I wonder who was there with you?

I wonder if you are there right now?

I wonder what would emerge if a pile was overturned? What might be found?

I wonder where you witnessed curiosity?

I wonder where you see God in this place?

Don’t just end up somewhere. Be Intentional about your next right and loving step.

On December 4, 1955, a one-day boycott of the city lines in Montgomery was planned. A group of  leaders began calling around to find local pastors who were willing to participate in the negotiations with city officials that they hoped would happen the following day. One of the calls made was to a pastor named Martin Luther King Jr.. King was asked to participate but he made it known that he was too busy with his dissertation, too busy preparing for his church’s annual planning conference, and too busy preparing the church’s budget, but he offered them space to meet at his church. Well, this group of leaders did not give up that easily. And so, by the Monday of the boycott, this group of leaders had worked him so hard that he accepted the nomination to be the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

During there first meeting, King spoke and his address provoked a thunderous response from the congregation. But all of the praise he received on that night quickly began to fade. As president, King’s initial demands were very tame and the MIA was not happy with what they called his strategy of moderation. Even the NAACP voiced concern that the MIA were settling for something far short of integration. Charles Marsh in his book, The Beloved Community writes that “King refused to go any farther. To the Baptist preacher with the downtown parish, segregation seemed too entrenched a tradition to call into question.” (24)

As I read Marsh’s book, I was surprised to know that in the early days of the bus boycott, King kept a loaded gun in his home. King explained that at this time“he thought the only way we could solve our problem was an armed revolt.” (26) So, King’s understanding of his call did not come in the first moment, instead it was gradual and he was learning as he went.

But there was a defining moment.  On Thursday, January 26, King was pulled over by 2 police officers and put in jail for driving 30 miles in a 25 mile an hour zone.  Marsh writes, “King spent the evening listening to stories of thieves and drunks and drifters and in exchange he gave the men a vivid account of his afternoon.” The men turned to King and asked if he would help set them free and he smiled and said “I’ve got to get myself out.” That evening, he returned home and the telephone rang. He picked up the phone and a man said, “Listen, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” (31) This was not an isolated incident for in the days surrounding King’s arrest, he had received 30-40 threatening calls like this one.  But on this night, he felt fear growing inside of him. The fear threatened to overtake him and he was looking for a way out of the spotlight. And so while sitting at the dining room table with a cup of coffee, about to give up, he heard a still small voice that said, “You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.” (32) and so he prayed. During his prayer, he heard Jesus saying “continue to fight on and I will never leave you. I will never leave you alone.” And quickly, his fears disappeared.

Henri Nouwen writes, “Through prayer we listen to the voice of love and find there the wisdom and courage to face whatever is in front of us.”

For most of us, hearing the voice of love does not happen in the first prayer we pray but it takes time and practice.  But where we all begin is with a first step and where we all continue is in taking the next step. We are in a sermon series titled Following Jesus and in this study my hope is that we gain clarity on what is our next right and loving step in following Jesus…

In our text for today, we read that Jesus returns to Galilee filled with the power of the spirit.  This is important because Luke wants us to remember that Jesus is not operating on his own, but is empowered through the Spirit. Just a few chapters ago in Luke, we read about the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus proclaiming that he is God’s beloved son. Then, the spirit led Jesus in the wilderness as he was discerning what type of ministry he felt God was calling him to.  Now, our passage begins by telling us that Jesus is teaching in Galilee through the power of the Spirit. And then Jesus says directly to his friends and family at the temple, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Later, in acts, Luke will write about how the spirit gave birth to the church and that at a time

when the church had no building, no staff, no budget, the ONE thing that it had going for it was the power of the spirit.  For Luke, the spirit is present in the life of Jesus and in those who follow him.

The power of the spirit is what helped Jesus transition from being Joseph’s son, the son of Mary and a carpenter, to proclaiming that this passage from Isaiah is now fulfilled in their hearing.  But let’s stop here and think about what the people who were hearing him speak went through.  At the beginning of our text, it reads that the people were praising Jesus. They seemed to be impressed, excited, and inspired by his teaching. But by verse 28, it says that the people were filled with rage.  Why did they go from praise to rage so quickly?  It’s because what they wanted, what they had in mind for a Messiah is not what Jesus said he was going to do. Instead of becoming curious about Jesus’ statements, they kicked him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. But Jesus passed through them untouched.  I think this last statement means more than he was not pushed off the cliff. I think it means that their words did not affect him.  He was centered in God’s call because he was not alone. He was communing with the spirit of love who gave him the wisdom and courage to face whatever was in front of him.

Through communing with the spirit, Jesus gained clarity about his mission.  Our passage today is the summary statement of his mission. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this statement Jesus gets really clear about his mission. His mission is to build upon and expand the idea of Jubilee that was a very familiar concept at that time. Every 50 years was a year of Jubilee in which a huge party was thrown and the land and the people were granted rest and given a second chance. The land did not have to keep producing with no end. The people would not experience debt slavery for the rest of their lives. So what Jesus is saying is that he is ushering in the Kingdom and in his Kingdom the year of Jubilee is present in this very moment.

Finding your voice and getting clear about your ministry is not just for people like MLK or for Jesus. It is for regular people like you and I.

I began my ministry here thinking that we were headed in one direction and then we had a major disruption that propelled us in another direction. Many of you in this church and many others in the community have reached out to care for me recognizing that I have spent my first year here inviting you to find your voice and share where you see Jesus calling us to go. So they asked me, “What about you? Where do you feel called?” So, I got really quiet and spent time listening.  At first, I connected to the word Reconciliation. This word resonates with our denomination in where we feel called to go.  But then as I listened a little more, I realized that a better word for me is Loving Kindness.  I envision spending time leading people to extend loving kindness to themselves. I see myself focusing on loving your neighbor and truly getting to know the people you live next to so that you are creating a loving and caring community bearing each other’s burdens and celebrating the joys of life together. Then, we would move to extending care and concern for strangers.  This could be people of different races, religious traditions, or immigration status.  We would go beyond that to extending loving kindness to the challenging people in our life. And we all have those! This work is deeply rooted in the Christian Tradition and is a faithful way to follow Jesus while also being inspired by a beautiful Buddhist Meditation.

Yet, we would not do this work alone.

But how do we connect to the spirit who give us the wisdom and courage to face whatever is in front of us?  The beauty of it is that you already are…our job is to practice  bringing our awareness to this connection. Richard Rohr writes “Don’t try to push the river or make the river happen; it is already happening, and you cannot stop it. All you can do is recognize it, enjoy it, and ever more fully allow it to carry you.” One way to rest our awareness on the flow of the spirit inside and between us all is to get quiet, pray and listen. In this way, you are communing with the spirit

As we come to the communion table, the idea of communing with the spirit really speaks to me. At the communion table, we remember that this is a table that is set wide and long. It’s a place for sharing and intimate conversation. It’s a place where we acknowledge that in this moment we commune with people across the world who are gathering around the table at this time. We commune with people who came before us and those who come after us. We are communing with the spirit that flows between us all. We are taking in the vibe, feeling the energy of the collective consciousness that is focused in one direction…on following Jesus. And so as we come to commune at the table, the first thing we do is pray. Henri Nouwen said it best, “Through prayer we listen to the voice of love and find there the wisdom and courage to face whatever is in front of us.”

Christmas is over. Baby Jesus is gone. Now what?

My niece, Natalie, just started driving. On December 18th, she had her 16th birthday party and on Monday morning, December 18th, she woke her mom, my sister, excited and ready to take her driving test.  Friends, she passed her drivers test by only a few points and then she drove her mom home. Then, we all watched through facetime, as Natalie drove away from her house to navigate the highways and busy streets alone. 

At the end of the day, my sister received a phone call from Natalie. Natalie had ventured out to target and had managed to park the car at the back of the parking lot far away from everyone else as her mom had instructed. But after having some fun in target, Natalie came back outside to find that her car was surrounded by two very large trucks and she had no idea how to get out.  My sister has told me that Natalie gets very overwhelmed and this seemed to be a situation that would cause her to sit down, cry and call her mom to come get her. But amazingly enough, Natalie was able to get creative and figure out what to do all on her own.  So here is what she did. She found two women who were walking out of target and she told them that she had just passed her driving test this morning and now she was stuck with no ability to see her way out from between these two trucks.  These two women came to her rescue by stopping traffic so that Natalie could back out safely and easily without fearing that she would be hit by another vehicle that she could not see coming. 

Alone. Sometimes, when we are alone we rise to the occasion, get creative, and figure out a solution. Other times, we may end up in tears and needing to call our mommies. 

In our text for today, Jesus is all alone. His extended family and friends had been visiting Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations and while they all kept each other company on the journey home, they did not notice that Jesus was missing!

This story in the gospel of Luke is a transition story between the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. 

We also are in a transition.  We have been celebrating the birth of Jesus, but now Christmas is over, baby Jesus and all our decorations are being put away for next year, festivities are over, and visitors have gone back home.  Sometimes, we forget Jesus until the Easter celebration.

But for those of us whose devotion is year-round what do we do now? We do what Jesus is doing. We talk about things that matter in ordinary time.

Luke presents us with 3 things that are important to the characters of this story  during this ordinary time.

First, Jesus as the word made flesh is teaching us about how incarnation works. We read that Luke states in v. 40 and v.52 that as Jesus grew in age that he increased in wisdom and in favor with God and humans. This is challenged with hearing a preteen Jesus speak sharply to his parents, but then we read a few verses later that he was obedient to them. Sounds like raising a typical teenager. One minute they are pushing family away to exert some independence and the next minute they are helping you clean up the mess in the kitchen without being asked. And like Jesus, we are called to grow in wisdom and favor by including and accepting all aspects of ourselves –even those parts of us that we would prefer to exclude. Our truest self is that part of us that bears the image of God and then we have our false self, the part of us that we hide or are ashamed or that we apologize so often. But to become whole people, we must wake up to the idea that the two have never really been two..they are really one. Father Richard Rohr writes “Divinity and Humanity must somehow be able to speak as one, for it the union of God and humankind is “true” in Jesus, there is hope that it might be true in all of us too.” (The Universal Christ, 27)

Second, we see that the temple is very important to the gospel of Luke. Luke shows us a Jesus whose second home is the temple and whose disciples at the end of the book are found continually blessing God in the temple after Jesus returns to his father. Last week, we read about Jesus being brought to the temple to be circumcised and then later to be presented with the sacrifice of 2 turtle doves. Today, temple scene is a little different. In this scene, we are transitioning from hearing what others say about Jesus to what he will say for himself.  It is here in the temple that Luke has Jesus speak for the first time. When any person in the bible speaks for the first time, this is important. The writer is saying, “Pay attention!” And what are his first words? He lets his parents know that he is coming to understand that the temple is his father’s house, and he needs to be there. The temple is where Jesus comes to understand who his father is, the purpose for his life, and it is the people in the temple who first recognize something amazing happening in him.  Luke shows us the significance of the temple for Jesus’ life and in the New Testament we read how the idea of the temple was expanded so that we might celebrate its importance for our lives.

Paul will later write to the church at Corinth, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you which you have from God and that you are not your own?” The idea of the temple, our father’s house has expanded to include each of us so that we might recognize that we are always in God’s presence and we are not only included…we are invited to collaborate as God’s presence in this world. I have heard some people say that they wished they could bottle up and take home with them the feeling they have when they are in a church or at summer camp or have had a deeply meaningful retreat. What I hear them saying is that they lose that feeling of God’s presence once they are in ordinary time.

My friends, this is what happens when we worship in ways that address the head and the heart but not the body. What happens is we lose the sense that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We lose the ability to see that God’s presence is always with us when we are home within ourselves. And we can’t lose these things because it is an essential piece to the Good News!

It means that it is always Christmas and always Easter because God is at work in your life to complete the incarnation and resurrection in your life. And it is in ordinary time that we practice bringing this kind of awareness into all of our life not separating and dividing spiritual time from secular time, true self and false self but instead recognizing that the 2 are really 1 because they enhance and complete each other.

Now this sounds very individualistic. So what about the community that gathers in church on Sunday morning? I think the idea of the temple of the Holy Spirit in each of us helps us recognize that what makes this space on Sunday Sacred has nothing to do with this building. It has to do with our awareness of God’s presence in each of us and in all those who have gone before us who have met, prayed, and worshiped in this space.

Our time together in this place is important because we gather to remind ourselves of these things. We remind each other of the truth of God’s abiding love and to celebrate with each other God’s eternal presence with us. This 1 hour reminds us of the power that we each have. The power to be who God has called us to be in this world.

Third, we see Jesus widening the boundaries of family and home. We read that Jesus came to Jerusalem for Passover with his family and other traveling companions that were an extension of the family. This was a group of people that watched over each other’s children and they trusted the community to keep everyone together.  But at one point, the community’s watchful eye turned away and in that moment, a 12 year old Jesus was gone. Mary and Joseph spent 3 anxiety ridden days searching for Jesus.  3 days of not knowing where their special boy was.  3 days wondering if they had failed the mission that God had asked of them which was to raise the one who would be the Messiah.

When we moved to Kingwood, we bought a house in one of the first subdivisions built. Our kids could walk to their elementary school and later to their middle school.  As we got to know our neighbors, we realized that in the house to our left lived a family with a boy who has autism.  One of the major sources of anxiety for this family was that he is a runner.  What this means is that at every opportunity he will run away. He will run out of the school building. He will run off the school bus.  If the doors at home are left unlocked, he will run away from home.  His parents and teachers and bus driver all know his tendencies, so they have action plans in place to keep him safe and his parent’s anxiety level down.  But one day, my family and I were walking on the trails, and we ran into his mom.  She was out of breath and clearly frightened.  We asked her what was wrong, and she told us that her son had run away from home. She asked us if we could walk the trails and ask people if they had seen a boy with a blue jacket.  My heart started pumping harder and my mind was spinning because I felt her anxiety and knew how unsafe this boy might be.  So, we spent some time talking to everyone we met about the boy, but nobody had seen him.  As we started looping back home, we ran into his dad. His dad told us that he had found the boy.  He knew that his son’s favorite place or home away from home was at Jack in the box so that was where he went first.  Guess what?  He was right.  His son was happy as can be in his second home while his parent’s worried that his life was in danger. 

Mary and Joseph also find a happy and kind of sassy young man asking questions, teaching, and listening to the wisdom of his elders in the temple. Jesus’ response to his parents anxiety is to tell them that this is his home away from home. He tells them that his family is no longer just his close family and friends, but includes an even larger extended family in the Temple which he calls his father’s house.  Jacob Neusner in his book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus writes about the importance of Torah study which helps us understand what Jesus is saying. He writes that in the Israel of Jesus’ time, Torah was understood to take precedence over genealogy so that the master of Torah gains a new lineage. In our text today, Jesus is speaking about this new lineage.

But Jesus does not stop here in widening his circle, for later in Luke’s gospel we read about Jesus including people beyond the house of Israel offering the Good News of God’s love to all who can hear his voice.  But I think he does more than just include.  Inclusion is the first step, but this word has become so overused in church work that we are now acknowledging it’s limitations.  Inclusion means you are welcome to join us.  You are welcome here, but it does not signal to people that they can participate or make a difference in shaping our community.  So let’s see how Jesus expands this idea of inclusion. For example, we read in Matthew 8:5-13, we read the story of the roman centurion who believed that Jesus could heal his servant.  The Roman Centurion tells Jesus that he doesn’t even have to come touch his servant, but asks that Jesus just say the word. Jesus is reportedly amazed and turns to those who are insiders and says, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness..” Jesus is not only including people, he is saying they will collaborate in God’s dream of bringing the kingdom to this earth. I am sure this was not comfortable for his people to hear.

Collaboration brings discomfort because collaboration happens when you include someone in your community in such a way that you say, “this is who we are as a people, but we are not tied to our ways. In fact, now that you are here, we hope that you will challenge us and encourage us to live into the fullness of God’s dream for us.” 

Amber Mattingly

Terrell McTyre Minister of New Church Strategies for the Disciples of Christ says that Collaboration takes equal sacrifice (sacrifice on both sides) to work with the chief carpenter to build something new.

Christmas is over. Baby Jesus is gone. Now what?

Now we get to do the messy work of finding Jesus in ordinary life. We get to grow in the wisdom of what it means to participate in the incarnation. We gather to remind ourselves of our innate power. And we continue widening the circle until all are not just welcomed.  All are not just included, but all are collaborating in God’s dream for our world.

2022 Call to Fast & Pray

There was a period of time in my life when I wondered if I was following God.  I had transitioned out of working in the church and began working with people who identified themselves from a wide variety of religious or nonreligious backgrounds. This was a very difficult transition for me because I loved the church and longed to be back in the church, but I also recognized that God needed to do a new thing in the church.

During this period, I worked in a variety of jobs while applying for jobs that would bring me back into contact with those who attend Christian religious services.  I would see a job, pray, apply, pray some more, interview, pray and then get the call that the committee chose to go in a different direction. This went on for 4 years.  I was also in communication with our area and our region about starting a new church, but every conversation ended with a firm NO. But I did not give up.  My best friend and I would celebrate each opportunity and then cry and be angry and disappointed together when that door would close. We also thanked God for the clarity that a closed door brings. During this time of waiting, We both held to the belief that that God was preparing me for something, but in our humanness, we told God that God’s timing sucks!

One opportunity popped up after a conversation with a friend. Chad was talking with a friend who shared that he was looking to hire a person focused on spiritual formation. Chad really wanted to work with this friend, but realized that my gifts best suited this position. So, he told his friend that he needed to have a few conversations about this new position with me.  As I talked with this family friend, it seemed like this job was the answer to our prayers but would require us to make a big move, so I pursued this opportunity and my husband pursued an equally exciting opportunity in this same city.  We planned, we strategized and we waited. 

The organization that I was in communication with shut down their hiring process, but my husband’s opportunity continued. Chad went to the final interview where the committee had narrowed their search to 2 people and everyone seemed really excited to welcome him into leadership. Then, we waited. And we prayed. And we waited.  A few weeks later, Chad received a call that the committee had decided to go in a completely different direction. And so the opportunities that we saw as the answer to our prayers died and we had no prospects to look to in the near future. We were sad and angry and frustrated and wondered if we had not followed God into these conversations. We could not imagine having to wait much longer because we did not know if we had the strength or the faith to continue.

In our scripture this morning, we join 2 people who have waited their entire life to see Jesus. Simeon and Anna according to tradition are the final Prophets who build upon our sacred story so that we might welcome this new thing that God is doing. In the eastern orthodox church, Simeon and Anna are celebrated as the God receivers and their feast day is marked on February 3.

Simeon and Anna’s time is coming to an end, but Mary and Joseph’s time of waiting is just beginning.

This scripture is best marked in 3 parts so Let’s look at the 3 stories that are intertwined.

First, we begin in chapter 2 verses 21-24. 

Both Mary and Joseph have been told that they would have a baby boy and that they were to call him Jesus. They have also been told that he is the promised Messiah, the one that everyone has been waiting for which called Mary and Joseph to fulfill a mission that they are not fully equipped or prepared to do. So, what do Mary and Joseph do as they are awaiting the transformation of this infant into the Light of the world?  They keep the faith. We see them obeying all that they know to do. They obey what is written in their sacred text. In Luke it is referred to as the purification law of Moses. Luke is referring to Leviticus 12 where Moses outlines exactly what they must do after the birth of a child.

So, they circumcise the boy, they present him at the temple, and they make a sacrifice.  The law requires that after a birth, a sacrifice be made at the temple and because Mary and Joseph could not afford a sheep, they were required only to offer 2 turtle doves. This couple, Mary and Joseph were devoted Jews who not only followed the law as it was written in their sacred text, but they also listened and followed the new the voice of angels and according to the angel, they were to name their son Jesus. Mary and Joseph’s story is just beginning as they celebrate this newborn child and through this ritual they are called to acknowledge the sacrifice and responsibility of raising this special child.  Their story is just beginning, but the next two stories are coming to a close.

Second, we read the story of Simeon in Luke 2: 25-35. We are told that Simeon had been waiting to see the Messiah having been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. In Simeon’s story, we see him speak first to God and then to Mary.  As he is speaking to God about the Good News and in vs. 29 his words can be translated as Simeon saying to God that he is being dismissed in peace, but I like the translation that Simeon is saying that he is being released.  Released tells us that either Simeon is saying to God “I may now be released from this life” or he is saying “release me from this watchful post, this vigil that I have been keeping.”  Then, he speaks of his eyes having seen God’s salvation that is for all people. 

Right after speaking about the Good News, Simeon does something that is radically different from tradition, Simeon speaks directly to Mary, Jesus’ mother.  His words to her reveal the hard truth about the road that they must journey with this special child.  He uses words that reverse the order of how we think life will happen.  Simeon tells Mary that this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many people.  In our culture, we talk about the rise and fall of pop stars like Lindsay Lohan who was one of the most popular child stars and then ended up in rehab and spending time in jail. The rise and fall of super star politicians.  The rise and fall of entire political parties.  But Jesus path is different, he will be opposed and fall before he will rise. This journey will feel like a sword has pierced his mother’s soul.  Is Simeon being unkind in how he speaks to Mary?  I don’t think so.  I think his love for God inspires him to speak the Good News and the harsh truth of the reality of living with this special child. 

Now, we read the story of the Prophetess Anna.  Her story is important because there are not many women in the bible who are called Prophets.  So, let’s see what her story tells us in Luke 2: 36-38. Like Simeon, Anna has been waiting. In her waiting, she has been fasting and praying night and day.  I think it is interesting that the writer says she has been fasting night and day instead of the traditional day and night. 

I think this goes to emphasize or put an exclamation point on the idea that there is a fall and then a rise with this new thing that God is doing.  And it reminds us of a grown Jesus’ words the gospel of John chapter 12 vs 24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”

This really speaks to me because back in January, I did my vision board for the year and this year, I felt called to the word “rise.”  This may be in connection with the idea that in my story, I had been feeling the full weight of the fall of my career, the fall of my hopes and dreams, the fall of wondering if I was even following God anymore and now it is time to rise.  This also may be calling me into who I am to be with you…which is to journey with you through the fall and then the rise. 

What we know from our faith tradition is that Jesus calls us to live differently from the world and so maybe it is our time to embrace the fall before we know how we will rise.  It is time to embrace the darkness of night before we see the light of day. It is time for our single grain of wheat to fall to the earth, so that we might bear much fruit.

Amber Mattingly

What we can trust is that during this fall and during the darkness of night, there will be those among us like Simeon and Anna who speak to us in love the Good News and the Hard truth. There will be leaders like Simeon who step forward with courage and conviction to tell us of their hopes and what we should be prepared to take responsibility for in the road ahead. There will be leaders like Anna fasting and praying so that their eyes and mouths will be ready to see and speak about this new thing that God is doing.

In Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The Wisdom Jesus she writes, “As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning.” She continues this thought and writes, “Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you.” (44) and then she reminds us that one of the beatitudes states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”  She translates this beatitude to mean that we are Hungering and thirsting to experience being anchored within God’s own aliveness.  So, This beatitude is not talking about the things you do, but the connection that you experience.  It is about the heart yearning for God. The hard truth is that we don’t experience hunger when there is food on the table. We don’t thirst after water when our cup is full.  We hunger and thirst when our plates and cups are empty. We hunger and thirst for God when we are in a season of waiting, when we like our hopes and dreams are dying, when we don’t know if we are even following God anymore. 

The characters in our story today show us how we might engage in hungering and thirsting for God. In beginning their time of waiting, Mary and Joseph followed the instructions of their sacred text and a new word from an angel. God gave Simeon a promise with no date attached.  And so Simeon was watchful and ready, keeping his vigil.  Anna spent most of her life fasting and praying in the temple which cleansed her mind, body and spirit that she might be ready to see Jesus and proclaim the Good News to all people.

Huston Smith writes that in the Christian tradition, we confess that the spirit comes to us in a whisper or in a dramatic event like Pentecost, but we also believe that humans can take the initiative in contacting the Spirit. He writes that Fasting and Praying are the way to commune with the Divine and that people who have used these spiritual disciplines have “soaked themselves in the spirit during these vigils, for when they return to the world they often give evidence of having almost palpably absorbed the Spirit and its attendant power.” (320).

It is no surprise then that a grown Jesus also fasted a prayed to ready himself for his road ahead. I can only imagine that he knew the path that he must follow to draw close to God to be spirit soaked.  So, today I invite you to consider how you might engage in the spiritual disciplines of fasting and praying on behalf of your church.  It is time that we yearn for God to birth this new thing that God is doing in our church.

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