Category Archives: Reflections

One of the most important things that I can almost never do.

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This is a powerful sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber, one of my favorite preachers these days. She speaks about death, resurrection, and broadening our vision beyond our disappointments.

My husband Jason often points out to me when I am “fretting.” This regularly looks like me trying to make sure I have managed every possible contingency for some situation or relationship so that there is as little likelihood of any adverse effect as possible. When I sit with what is behind the fretting, I think I am afraid of losing control of a situation. I get spiral-y about it: That if I don’t manage this now in this way, it will be even more difficult and uncomfortable to handle it later on.

I am always grateful for a call to not worry about controlling everything so much, which is what I hear out of this sermon. That I can’t know what I am attempting to control for, because I can only see so far, and so wide.

When I try to control everything, I am worried about what I might lose if I don’t have control. Would I lose this image of myself as independent if I have to borrow money from my parents? Would I lose the chance at a great job if I don’t maintain this relationship perfectly? It’s like I build this nest of things I can manage around me to protect me from the sucking vastness of ambiguity. I believe that being able to sit with ambiguity is crucial to most things in life–but it still scares the crap out of me.

The fascinating challenge I am coming to is: what would I worry about if I believe in a God in whom nothing, not even the finality of death, has the final word? This immensity of this notion is almost dizzying. That there is nothing that cannot be rebuilt in new ways, nothing that I can never come back from.

At On Tap last week, we talked about dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and resurrection. Someone pointed out that with resurrection, things don’t come back the exact same. New life is not just old life revived; it is something altogether new. It has new qualities, new textures, touches new places. How freeing it is to hope in a God who does not renew things in the image of what I would want to see again, but deals in spaces where we are surprised by joy.

This calls me to release some of that control, that fretting doesn’t get me anywhere because the most life-giving things in my life may not look the way I expected them to. And I’m terrible at not attempting to control things. Despite what I can aspire to, I still fear loss. But I can practice it, and hold those times when I am reminded to release that tight fist close. And, like anything practiced, it gets easier and more natural the more you do it.

So I’ll keep practicing.

 

Criminal Justice and a Broken Theology of the Cross

This article by Benjamin Corey looks at the legacy of how punitive atonement theologies are reflected in our justice system. He makes some positive claims about what Jesus dying on the cross is doing, which you may or may not agree with and which makes for great discussion as well.

But I think his reflection on our justice system is simple and powerful. Whether or not it is a legacy of one theology of atonement that arose out of Feudal Europe or not, a strong contingent of popular theology today holds that If there is offense, then someone needs to be punished. A recent Pew poll on American support of the death penalty still showed white Christians across the board as supporting the death penalty substantially more than the broader American adult population (and the racial differences in support of capital punishment are worth another discussion unto itself).

Granted, punishment as a form of “making things right” has been around for much of human history. But we can see instances of choosing a different path, such as in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa. In that case, those offenders, those who committed heinous crimes and murders, heard the stories of how those left behind, the survivors, were affected. And the offended against heard the stories of their offenders. Across the board, offenders and survivors were humanized in each others’ eyes.

In a culture where violence and punishment make up justice, how can we be agents of reconciliation? How can we keep another’s humanity, his or her joys and struggles,  at the forefront before anything else?

Community Post!

Young adult and Emerging Leader Alex Bonte wrote this powerful reflection on hope for the Carillon this last week. I appreciate his wrestling with how to reclaim hope and make it come alive. What does it mean for you for hope to come alive?

If [you] would ever like to offer something–a reflection, song, video, image, whatever, let me know and I would love to post it here. I would love this to be a community-curated page!

 

View From Here from The Carillon, March 26, 2014:

“I have been struggling to connect with our lenten theme this year. It is difficult for me to not think of hope as delusion, or as some sort of a future-focused betrayal to the proudly present grace and love of God. Making hope something that feels alive has been difficult.
     At Gather this week, instead of an extended discussion time, Kelly (our Young Adult Coordinator) provided us with different sized paper and card stock, crayons, pastels (which I mostly understand as “fancy crayons”), and colored pencils and asked us to draw what we felt or thought about hope. 
     I started with a deep, black hole in the center of my paper. The deepest black I could grind into the page. Surrounding that darkness was a loosely orchestrated cacophony of color that radiated from and swirled around the black. The colors bled together, some were pleasant, others muddy, and faint streaks of black cut through the colors at uncomfortable moments. It was not pretty. It was not meant to be pretty. And this is how I understand hope – the colors that surround the deepest solitudes I face. Hope is my answer to nothingness, hope is what is there when I am hopeless, and I wonder if it has to be much else.
     I used the word “understand” but even now I obviously have trouble describing it in specific terms. For whatever reason though, drawing those very ugly color swirls helped push the word hope toward real feelings in my soul. I don’t know what it means yet, but at the very least it has confusing and colorful meaning now, where it held only flatness before.
     It is these practices of reexamination, redefinition, and reclamation that are the hope I see for new a new voice of Christianity. Taking words and ideas that have fallen stale or grown painful and powerfully grabbing them back into the realm of life. Into a context where concepts like hope can again inspire in a way that hooks your gut and tugs at it, or where the mention of sin will not be toward an ambition of shame, but rather an acknowledgment of our shared humanity, our collective imperfection. The safest and boldest context of all: the loving embrace of others like us, the warmth of creation itself, and the endless compassion that is God. To be loved is to be known, and to be known is to be loved. Hope has come before, hope is here, and hope will come again; even though it may be neither pretty nor readily understood.”

 

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Sermon on God Having Our Back

http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/44978263

Here’s the sermon I preached this last Sunday. Read below or watch with link above; it’s much better heard and seen rather than read. Starts at around 31:40. Make sure to check out Alex Bonte and Derek Tam performing “Canaan Bound” by Andrew Peterson after the sermon ends.

I have lived in a lot of different places in my life. When I left my home in Colorado and went to college in Iowa, I had a hard time. I missed my land, I missed the way the rocks crunched under my feet when I hiked, I missed the color of the dirt, the taste of the air, the familiar mountains that shouldered up against my hometown, and just knowing my way around—I felt ownership of the place. I’ve re-started my life in about four different places, and I still always miss my home in Colorado.
One of my favorite musicians is a guy named William Elliott Whitmore. I first saw him in concert when I was at Grinnell College in Iowa. He didn’t have a band; just his guitar, his banjo, and his foot with a boot on it that he stomped into the stage by way of percussion. When the concert ended, he had left a divot in the stage where his foot had been. Check him out; he’s awesome.
By way of that introduction, He’s also a native Iowan who loves his home. Seems about every third song of his is about his emotional connection to Iowa. He has a song that’s just about the soil called “Black Iowa Dirt” that is all just about his engagement and relationship with the soil—“I put that black Iowa dirt on a biscuit, I put that black Iowa dirt in my tea, I put that black Iowa dirt in a big ol’ bucket and I carry it around with me.”
I can kind of relate to that—I take pink Pikes Peak granite rocks from home because it seems like taking a piece of home with me. It’s me trying to carry home with me, wherever I go. I don’t think it through too much when I grab these—it just seems like an important thing to do. I want to hold onto it, I want to hold onto home.
Home is not something you can easily explain to someone else. Home is home, you know? You may not be able to explain it to someone in a way that will dazzle and convince them with a logical argument about why your home meets these and these and these criteria to make it objectively the best. But it is yours, and is in your veins, It always lives with us.
In this passage from Genesis, God speaks to Abram and asks him to leave home. His family has been rooted here. He knows the land, where to get what he needs, and his family surrounds him, he is connected in; he probably baby-sat a lot. But God tells him to leave. And it’s not like, after he left, he could get in a plane and come back—he would leave forever. I wonder if he took something from his home—a rock, a twig, a bucket of dirt—to remember the place, or if he was fully ready to turn his face forward to a new place that was uncertain, but promised.
At our last On Tap meeting at Jupiter, one of our young adults there said that this passage resonates with his own feeling of being deep in the throes of transition. A lot of young adults, myself included, so often are conditioned these days to go to where the jobs are, where the next degree program is, follow the opportunities, be flexible, regardless of place. A sense of home becomes more and more relative. But we keep following a promise—of success, generally.
In the scripture, God promises that “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” This is pretty challenging, right? God is going to curse people because they first curse Abram? But this person at On Tap heard this as God saying “I’ve got your back, through everything, through anything. I’m with you, and I’ve got your back.”
God calls on Abram to do something radical, difficult, and probably aching with grief. Leave your home. Leave what you’ve known. God doesn’t even tell him where he’s going yet! but Abram heard God—and he trusted God enough to say “yes”. And so he goes, bound towards Canaan. And God promises to have his back, and Sarah’s too, as they go forth.
There’s new life in leaving home, in leaving what is familiar. I firmly believe when we disrupt our comfortable, broken-in patterns, these cracks develop. And these are where God enters in. It seems like God is in the places where we are surprised by how we survive and even thrive in new ways and in new places. We get a better sense of who we are and who God is when things change; when our old ways of being are challenged and shaken up.
The OT and Gospel texts for Lent this year all seem to touch on the idea of transition. In all of these stories folks are being called, pulled or driven out from their current realities to something new and transformative. This is part of the legacy of Abram—exalted ancestor, who, as God continues to bind them together in covenant, becomes Abraham—ancestor of a multitude.
Paul picks up the story of Abraham in his letter to the Romans, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This is an important distinction between believing in God and believing God. You can believe in ghosts or aliens—it’s about how you interpret the scattered evidence to represent real existence. That’s more the believing in God. But believing God goes down much deeper. Believing God is trusting God.
It can feel hard to trust God. God can feel like a remote and mysterious power, and some ways of talking about God seem to reinforce this. Especially when God’s mystery and transcendence are appealed to when painful or shocking things we can’t understand happen, this just seems to crank that gulf open wide between us and God. But I think the story of Abraham here moves us the opposite way—to be blessed by letting God come near to us. But how do we trust God?
We can trust God because God, like a loving parent, gives of Godself for our good. God is also making a transition in this new covenant in Jesus. And when God gave up power to enter our world as a person just like us. To be known intimately with us, and to show us ways of doing relationships in new, life-giving ways.
God tells Abram that through his descendants, the world will be blessed. How does Abram bless the world? I think Paul’s perspective brings this back around—Abraham believed God—he had faith enough to leave what was comfortable behind–and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. I wonder if leaving our comfort zones is where that blessing comes in. Where we are closer to God because everything else may feel unsteady. When we’re vulnerable and open, because we may not rely on ourselves or our expertise in the same way.
That is the way I think of righteousness—when we acknowledge that we’re not in control. When the layers of security and posturing we build up around ourselves are peeled away to the place where we can stand upright before God complete with all of our messiness, and relax into the faith that we are safe in God. And then, further, when we act in the fullness of belief that God has our back.
Blessing isn’t in comfort or windfall, blessing is in being loved by the God who loves the unlovable, who gives hope to the hopeless, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And the extent, the trajectory, of that blessing, that blessing first in Abram, is that we are equipped by God’s power to do the same to others. We are empowered to love the unloveable, to bring hope to the hopeless, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That’s the place where God is. That’s the place where God empowers us. That’s the blessing.
This is our deepest strength. When we accept that our strength does not come purely from ourselves or the things we do, but comes from God going before us and loving us so strongly that we can stand up with a courage and a promise not entirely our own. Our trust in this is our righteousness.
Abram believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He trusted that God was working for good. And I believe that when he accepted God was for him, he could stand tall, have the courage to leave home, and bring his full self before God. He could go from the broken-in and static present to a future that was uncertain, but full of promise. God comes to us full of love, with a voice that thunders, and promise that surprises and disturbs. We may be called and we may be changed, but we will never be abandoned. Because God has our back. Amen.

Gather Series Kick-off, and, Why Hope is So Powerful but I Kind of Hate It.

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Photo Courtesy of Matt Erickson.

This Sunday at First Church, we opened our first Sunday of Lent and kicked off our Lent theme “Saved by Hope”.  I’m curious and excited to see how this unfolds in our church, and I’m also pretty challenged by this theme. And my hang-up, turns out, is on “hope.”

Hope…is a concept I value (how’s that for non-commital?). I think it’s an important aspect of how we are called to relate to the world as Christians. I can say a lot of nice things about it, preach on it, but it is tough for me on some very visceral levels. I’m fairly cynical, and some talk of hope triggers some self-comparison in me. When I hear people talk about it in such glowing and happy terms enough, I feel like I must be doing it wrong, because I feel more cynical than I’d like to often admit. And I kind of feel like a professional-Christian fail. Hope sounds like a nice concept to me, but it’s hard for me to connect with in any real way. I actually wind up feeling kind of resentful, because I feel like some defect I have is exposed—I’m not as full of hope as I get the message (probably my own internalizing) that I should be.

Working as a hospital chaplain didn’t really help with feeling like I can comfortably relate to hope. I heard so many family members tell each other, hoping in darkness, that their loved one would be okay. Would come through this stroke, this infection, and would be returned to them as fulfillment of their hope if they just kept holding out hope. And more often than not, that loved one did not. I found nothing to say in these situations besides to sit with them and hold the agonizing silence with compassion. I wasn’t sure where hope was. In some of the more typical discourse I hear about it, it doesn’t seem to work itself out the way I might expect. These experiences made me wonder if hope is something we can easily perceive or experience, or if it arcs beyond our perception. That’s the way I have to hope for hope—it’s often beyond what I can understand.

I’ve preached on hope and tried to wrestle with it, and I think the most I can say about it is that it’s so unpredictable, so hard to anticipate or control, that it’s hard to pin down. I guess hope feels to me like something hard to talk about because it is kind of incorporeal. I don’t think you can know what it is until it happens. It comes out of nowhere. If any of you follow Hyperbole and a Half, (if not, read all of the older comics and enjoy your laugh-cry) It’s Allie’s little shriveled piece of corn. And maybe that surprise, that hope working itself out beyond how we can get it, is good news.

This Lent, in Thursday Gather, I invite all of us to wrestle with these theological pieces that come up in Lent. We discuss how we relate to these concepts, how we’ve experienced them, and how/if we can discover some blessing in them. Each week will be broken down by a word: “saved”  “hope”  “atonement” and the final two that I don’t think you can talk about one without the other: “cross” and “resurrection”. These can be pretty tough for some of us, especially those who identify as progressive Christian, to relate to or engage with. But I believe there is some beauty and grace in these too that goes down deep. I can’t wait to hear what comes up.

This will be supplemented with blog posts some very smart folks have written about these topics I’ll post on this page. I encourage you to read them before Gather each week. The conversation won’t specifically be around one post, but they will provide some awesome questions and concepts. Check back here regularly.

All of these can tie together or stand alone, so come to all or drop in as you can. Looking forward to seeing you and hearing these conversations!

Ash Wednesday

Pilgrim crosses at Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico.
Pilgrim crosses at Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico.

Beloved, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Today, we begin a journey that invites us to clear out the gunk that surrounds our hearts, and reconciles the points where we get off track. In Lent, we tune parts of our lives to make the call of God come in a little clearer.  We can track our intimacy and estrangement with God. Many theologians over the centuries have defined sin as estrangement from God. Where God seems far off, and things make less sense. Sin is a terribly loaded word, one that people unjustly level at each other, when it is really a conversation between you and God. I think it boils down to: What makes you feel stingy with love? Do less of that. What makes you truly love more? Do much, much more of that. Lent is a time when we can really make these things a practice.

I was talking with a friend about what I might do during Lent, and as I thought through ideas, some seemed harder than others. Give up beer? It’d be hard, but I could do it. Give up internal judgment, or acting out of perfectionism? I could never do that well. But as she often does, she cracked my fretting open and told me, “You don’t have to do it perfectly. That’s why it’s a practice. You work on it, and see where you get. And practice forgiving yourself when you don’t do what you want. The practice changes you, not getting it right.” We can undertake practices in Lent not because we are prepared to execute them perfectly, but because we are formed by practice, even (especially) when we embrace our imperfections.

Embracing our imperfections, starting our practice from this acknowledgment, opens us up to deeper intimacy with ourselves, our neighbors, and with God. True intimacy is not just acts you do, or looking like you have a relationship with God. It is sharing your soul, it is counting on God and knowing you can, feeling that nothing is too ugly or shameful to bring before God, because in the end you are held in unconditional love. So this love gives us room to admit when we fall short of all we could be, because those shortcomings are still not the final word. And we have value not because of the things we do or do not do, but because God loves us first.

We all come from different places, and may have different ways to grow closer to God during Lent. The whole goal is intimacy with God, at the end, not pure self-denial. Self-denial is sometimes the means, but the end is relationship. Authentic, intimate relationship. I encourage you to think thoroughly and prayerfully about what practices, in your own circumstances, will open your heart to God.

Throughout this time, if I can be of any support to you, I am available.