“All is not lost.” #whyImarch

I’ve been trying for days to articulate my reasons for participating in the “Women’s March on Topeka.” I think maybe, just maybe, I’m ready to talk about them.

2016 proved to be a difficult year for me personally. Only my closest confidantes knew the struggles I faced, and even then, no one truly realized the depths of my internal anguish. It was a year of loss.

I lost confidence in my vocation. In my eighth year of ministry, people continued to be surprised that I could preach an articulate sermon, lead thoughtful discussion, connect with suffering, preside over meaningful funerals, and officiate memorable weddings. Congregants bemoaned the demonstration of strong leadership (btw: I’ve never heard a man called pushy) and the exercise of prophetic voice (keep your opinions to yourself). I was asked, “Why can’t you be more like your husband?” I quit writing and speaking unless it was required.

I lost confidence in my ability to “make things all better.” Having been a mom for twenty-six years, I have witnessed and experienced a variety of ups and downs with my children (biological, adopted, and step). But honestly, I wasn’t primed for this family crisis. I wasn’t in any way prepared to watch my child struggle with issues of identity and self-worth. No matter what I did or didn’t do, I couldn’t make it all better, and my heart broke for the child whom I loved so ferociously. I could not overcome this sadness.

I lost confidence in my future. Prior to last year, I was pretty certain about a future path. I continued to work toward my Doctor of Ministry, but my passion waned. Always an excellent student, I began to struggle with basic assignments. I lost focus easily, and my creativity failed me. I considered dropping out of my program, but I was too ashamed (and not to mention stubborn!) to quit. I requested some extra time with a course and eventually pulled it off. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m no quitter.

I lost confidence in my country and her inhabitants. As cynical as I can sometimes be, in my heart I remain an idealist. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” resonates deep within me. I believe in the lofty dreams of freedom. I believe in the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I believe that all persons are created equal and that every single person on this planet is inherently deserving of these dreams and ideals. I am deeply saddened to discover that much of America feels differently.

So consumed by these circumstances, I lost myself for a time.

I march because my privileged status affords me the luxury of self-reflection, access to mental healthcare services, entrance to higher education, and audacity to dream.

I march because when too many women and marginalized persons lose themselves, they do not possess the resources to find themselves again.

I march because I believe as a minister of the gospel that Jesus loves lost people and knows them by name.

I march for the woman at the well who had lost herself in serial relationships but found hope in being seen and known by Jesus.

I march for the woman who reached out to touch Jesus’ cloak though she had lost herself for many years to a bloody infirmity.

I march for the woman who lost herself to a bad reputation but became known and remembered for anointing Jesus.

I march because women and all marginalized persons lose themselves to inequality daily – whether in the workplace, the healthcare system, the church, the government, or the educational system.

I march because women and all marginalized persons lose themselves when they have no choices – in relationships, in the economy, over their bodies.

I march not only to find myself but also to say to precious, vulnerable people of all persuasions, “All is not lost.”

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A Portrait of Freedom

Once upon a time, there was a colorless tiger. All his shades were grays, blacks and whites. So much so, that he seemed like something out of an old black and white movie. His lack of color had made him so famous that the world’s greatest painters had come to his zoo to try to put some color on him. None of them succeeded, as the colors would always just drip down off his skin.

Then along came Van Cough the crazy painter. He was a strange guy who travelled all about, happily painting with his brush. Well, it would be more accurate to say that he moved his brush about, as if to paint; because he never put any paint on his brush, and neither did he use canvas or paper. He painted the air, and that’s why they called him Van Cough. So, when he said he wanted to paint the colorless tiger, everyone had a good laugh.

When entering the tiger’s cage he began whispering in the animal’s ear, and moving his dry brush up and down the tiger’s body. And to everyone’s surprise, the tiger’s skin started to take on color, and these were the most vivid colors any tiger had ever had. Van Cough spent a long time whispering to the animal, and making slight adjustments to his painting. The result was truly beautiful.
Everyone wanted to know what the painter’s secret was. He explained to them that his brush was only good for painting real life, and that to do that he needed no colors. He had managed to paint the tiger using a phrase he kept whispering in its ear: “In just a few days you will be free again, you shall see.”

And seeing how sad the tiger had been in his captivity, and how joyful the tiger now seemed at the prospect of freedom, the zoo authorities transported him to the forest and set him free, where never again would he lose his color.

We will soon return to our tiger, but for now we continue our series in the book of Galatians.

The Word of the Lord from Galatians 5:1, 13-26 (MSG)

Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
23-24 Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
25-26 Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

Paul continues the theme of grace. Last week we considered the radical ways in which the grace of God through Jesus Christ eradicates ethnic and racial divides, breaks down social and economic barriers, and eliminates inequality among gender and sexual identities. Today we pick up the rallying cry of freedom. Verse 1 from our text is sometimes called the Magna Carta of Paul’s writings. Christ has set us free to live a free life. Christ has set us free for freedom. So Christ has truly set us free. So Christ has made us free. You get the idea. Freedom is a beautiful thing; it is a product of God’s grace. We know from studying this letter of Paul’s over the last several weeks that grace is God’s doing; it is God’s gift, offered at God’s initiative.

Let’s return to our tiger. What about him? He is a captive, confined by fencing. He is completely lacking in color, being only black, white, and gray. No matter what the people tried, color did not stick to the tiger. Artists attempted to impose beauty and color on him from the outside, but the colors simply ran off. He remained colorless and unattractive. He was known for what he lacked – color. Until one day the crazy artist came by with dry brushes and no paint; as the artist whispered into the tiger’s ear and brushed him with dry brushes, color began to appear on his body. Beautiful, vibrant, rich color. He became the loveliest and happiest tiger anyone had ever seen; he was truly transformed by his time with the painter. Everyone was mystified. How had the artist achieved this result with a dry brush and a whisper? His answer: I simply spoke to him of freedom. You will be free soon. And it was the prospect of freedom which transformed the colorless tiger into a masterpiece, a thing of beauty.

I wonder if Paul is painting a similar picture for the Galatian church and also for us.

For centuries the law of Moses had served as a fence around the Israelites and the outward practice of circumcision had rendered their bodies different. The result was that Israel became enslaved to the law and focused on the differences between them and the rest of the world. Even the practice of circumcision became a black and white legal requirement. Imposed from the outside, neither the law nor circumcision produced a transformed life, just like the colorful paint applied to the outside of the tiger. It wouldn’t stick and therefore did not produce a beautiful animal.

But, Paul says, Christ has set you free. And the fruit of freedom is a transformed life. Like the eccentric artist, the Spirit of Christ whispers into each heart and mind, and the Spirit alone produces a brilliant, vibrant, beautiful life. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, willingness to stick with things, compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people, loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. This is a portrait of freedom.

Verse 1 proclaims, Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

The freedom that comes as a gift through God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not simply freedom for freedom’s sake. It is the freedom never to be enslaved again. Never again to be confined by our own self-centeredness. Never again to be imprisoned by competitive, cutthroat desires to get ahead and look out for number one. Never again to submit to a set of manmade rules that separate us from others. Never again to be painted by the world’s brush and made into the world’s image.

Like the colorless tiger, Christ has set us free instead to become all that God intended for us from the beginning. We were never meant to be competitive, self-serving, hateful, bigoted, or cantankerous. Christ has set us free love others as we love ourselves. Christ has set us free to know deep and abiding joy. Christ has set us free to be compassionate and generous. Christ has set us free to be equals and co-laborers in God’s mission. Christ has set us free to see the Spirit of God in each and every life.

The colorless tiger was transformed by the whisper of freedom. Indeed, that promise of freedom enabled him to become the beautiful, colorful creature he was born to be.

May you hear the Spirit whispering in your heart and mind today. Christ has set you free, and you are free indeed. It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love. You are not simply free for freedom’s sake but for the sake of becoming the loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, gentle, good, patient, compassionate, selfless, faithful, generous person God created you to be.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

When Regular Prayers Won’t Suffice

Good morning. During our congregational prayer time today, we are abandoning our usual practice. We will not focus on our needs and requests, but instead we will sit with a community in their grief. The Psalm for this morning touches on feelings of depression and being forgotten. I invite you to imagine what it must be like to be part of a group that suffers and feels forgotten or abandoned by family, friends, church, or God.

Psalm 42 (Adapted from CEB)
Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
2 My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?
3 My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?”
4 But I remember these things as I bare my soul:
how I made my way to the mighty one’s abode,
to God’s own house,
with joyous shouts and thanksgiving songs—
a huge crowd celebrating the festival!
5 Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give God thanks,
my saving presence and my God.
6 My whole being is depressed.
That’s why I remember you
from the land of Jordan and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls;
all your massive waves surged over me.
8 By day the Lord commands faithful love;
by night God’s song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”
11 Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give thanks,
my saving presence and my God.

Lord our God-
We are here to proclaim that you have not forgotten any of the people of this world, that all people have been lovingly created in your own image.
This morning we set aside our own lists and agendas to grieve with the families of the LGBT community in Orlando and around the world. We say their names aloud and acknowledge in our hearts the deep loss experienced by their families and loved ones.

Edward Sotomayor Jr.
Stanley Almodovar III
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo
Juan Ramon Guerrero
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz
Luis S. Vielma
Kimberly Morris
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice
Darryl Roman Burt II
Deonka Deidra Drayton
Alejandro Barrios Martinez
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla,
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez
Amanda Alvear
Martin Benitez Torres
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon
Mercedez Marisol Flores
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez
Oscar A Aracena-Montero
Enrique L. Rios, Jr.
Miguel Angel Honorato
Javier Jorge-Reyes
Joel Rayon Paniagua
Jason Benjamin Josaphat
Cory James Connell
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez
Luis Daniel Conde
Shane Evan Tomlinson
Juan Chevez-Martinez
Jerald Arthur Wright
Leroy Valentin Fernandez
Tevin Eugene Crosby
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan
Christopher Andrew Leinonen
Angel L. Candelario-Padro
Frank Hernandez
Paul Terrell Henry
Antonio Davon Brown

These are not only Orlando’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, moms and dads, but they are also ours.

We have not forgotten Omar Mateen, whose family & friends are left to live with the terrible burden of his crime.
Now we will sit in silence for one minute. Move our hearts to compassion. Fill us so with your love for people that there is no room left for hate, fear, or condemnation.

-Silence-

And now, Lord, we pray for the Church universal, for our congregation, and for us as individuals…
We confess that we’ve been too quick to label, too quick to fear, too quick to judge. We confess that we’ve not done due diligence when it comes to understanding our LGBT fellow humans and our fellow humans who practice other faiths. We will sit in silence again for a minute to give you space to speak into our lives. We will be quiet, Lord. We want to hear you in the stillness. We pray for courage to face the ways in which you are calling us to learn, to grow, and to change. Speak, Lord, we are listening.

-Silence-

We pray all things through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God forever and ever. Amen.

Warning: Unpredictable Spirit

Birthdays are fairly predictable; they come every year whether we are ready or not. As my birthday approached this week, thankfully, I was not subjected to a party or any embarrassing surprises. Instead, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, especially about change. I’ve changed a lot over the years. Now, some change is predictable and can be faced with grace, a little wrinkle cream, and a really good hairdresser. Other change is unpredictable, for instance, abandoning some of the things I was taught in church growing up and embracing new ways of understanding. I never could have predicted all the ways in which the Spirit of God might use circumstances, people, and opportunities to change me in radical and often surprising ways. Some changes have come quickly and others slowly; change is never easy. For someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy surprises or unpredictability, the Spirit’s work is sometimes uncomfortable, often disruptive, and even painful.

I understand the folks in today’s 2nd text; maybe you will, too. They’re not too sure about changing their minds, and they have little use for out of bounds unpredictability. When the Spirit turns their clearly defined world upside down, they have to figure out quickly how to live into a radical and surprising new reality, what to do with all the spiritual and religious training that no longer applies, and how to become the people God calls them to be without the safety of the old rules and clear-cut definitions.

The first text for today comes from the gospel of John 13:34-35.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

Our second text will be our focus this morning, but it cannot be considered without the first. The word of the Lord from Acts 11:1-18…

Soon the news reached the apostles and other believers in Judea that the Gentiles had received the word of God. But when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, the Jewish believers criticized him. “You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!” they said.
Then Peter told them exactly what had happened. “I was in the town of Joppa,” he said, “and while I was praying, I went into a trance and saw a vision. Something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners from the sky. And it came right down to me. When I looked inside the sheet, I saw all sorts of tame and wild animals, reptiles, and birds. And I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.’
“‘No, Lord,’ I replied. ‘I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure or unclean.’
“But the voice from heaven spoke again: ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’ This happened three times before the sheet and all it contained was pulled back up to heaven.
“Just then three men who had been sent from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry that they were Gentiles. These six brothers here accompanied me, and we soon entered the home of the man who had sent for us. He told us how an angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, ‘Send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He will tell you how you and everyone in your household can be saved!’
“As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as he fell on us at the beginning. Then I thought of the Lord’s words when he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?”
When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”

Well, here we are on the 5th Sunday of Easter, and up to this point the scripture has been giving us glimpses of the resurrected Jesus. Today, though, we have a shift. Instead of seeing the resurrected Jesus, we are challenged by a text that demonstrates resurrected living.

This story is part of the larger narrative of the early church and represents a pivotal point in history. Acts 9, 10, and 11 tell us stories of both individuals and communities who are dramatically changed by the Spirit of God. These folks weren’t just converted and cleaned up, but their minds were transformed, worldview was shaken, beliefs were upended. None of them could have predicted such sweeping and dramatic change brought about by the unpredictable, untamable, unfathomable Spirit of God.

For a quick review, in chapter 9 we find the conversion of Saul on the Damascus road. Remember the blinding light, Saul who had been opposing those following the Way of Jesus meets the Spirit of Jesus and is called by God to be a preacher to the Gentiles. Crazy! Unbelievable story. No one could have predicted it.

In chapter 10, we find the beginnings of today’s story. At the same time in two different locations, both Cornelius (a gentile soldier) and Peter (our favorite bumbling disciple) receive messages from God. The result is a meeting at Cornelius’ house where Peter shares the good news of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descends on this gentile household. Crazy! Unbelievable story. No one could have predicted it.

Finally, in this morning’s reading we meet Peter and the Jerusalem church in the aftermath of the craziness. The church has heard a rumor; Peter has gone out of bounds and broken Jewish law by entering a gentile home and sharing a meal. Notice that they are not angry about Peter sharing the good news with them but about Peter entering into fellowship, establishing a relationship, and loving these folks as family. He has crossed a clearly defined line; he has bucked their ages-old tradition. Peter was a good Jew, and he knew better. Crazy! Unbelievable story. No one could have predicted it.

Then, Peter explains himself. He tells the vision of the sheet being let down from heaven, 3 times mind you. Sound familiar? God spoke to him, making it clear that neither people nor animals that God created were unclean. Thus, Peter began to change his mind about all he had been taught concerning the gentiles, and he completely changed his mind when he witnessed the Spirit of God come in the gentile household of Cornelius.

We know the Sunday school version of this story, and it makes perfect sense because we are all non-Jews who have come into the kingdom of God. When we think of this story in those terms, though, we fail to understand the magnitude of Peter’s experience and the transformation of his thinking.

Remember that he was not criticized for sharing the gospel with outsiders but for being cozy and sharing food. Religious tradition allowed Peter to convert outsiders but not to befriend them. The vision transformed the early church; in a matter of moments, centuries of religious and social tradition were undone by the Spirit of God. Peter and the entire faith community were compelled to change their mindset and follow the Spirit of God into new territory. The early church began to learn through experience what Jesus meant in John 13 when he said, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Here is the thing. There is no way to predict on whom the Spirit of God will fall. There is no way to predict within whom the Spirit of God will work out repentance. There is no way to predict to whom the Spirit of God will grant salvation.

Peter was initially disgusted when God gave him the vision; it was unimaginable to him. But he allowed God to change his mind about both the animals and the people.

Think for a moment about the people that repulse you, people with whom you fundamentally disagree, people with whom you cannot imagine sharing dinner, people you’ve been taught are out of bounds.

Guess what? Those are the people to whom Jesus is referring when he gives the command to love. And he doesn’t mean a theoretical kind of love like it’s okay to convert them, but we don’t have to befriend them. He is talking about actually rubbing elbows, actually engaging conversation, actually sharing food, actually becoming friends. This is how the world will know that we are his disciples, when we begin to really love the people we cannot imagine loving. The Spirit of God wants to change our minds about those very folks, just like Peter’s mind was changed.

Easter is the season of resurrection, but Jesus isn’t the only one who gets a new life. When we receive the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus and we allow God to remake us in Jesus’ likeness, then we become resurrected people. Today’s scripture lesson shows us what resurrection looks like.

Resurrected people go where the Spirit blows and cultivate relationships as led by the Spirit, even though it is uncomfortable, unpredictable, and unfathomable. That is exactly how the Spirit works. When our faith in Jesus feels comfortable, our circle of friends grows predictable, and our understanding of God is actually fathomable, we are in trouble, my friends. The Spirit of God is in the business of transformation and resurrection. If our minds are not being changed and if our relationships are not challenging us, then perhaps we are not allowing the Spirit of God to blow in our lives.

Rachel Held Evans says the following in her book, Searching for Sunday.
“We religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand.
Well, guess what? It already has.
Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross with outstretched hands, looked out upon those who had hung him there, and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Grace has been out of hand for more than 2,000 years now. We best get used to it.” (p. 39-40)

Well, it might not be your birthday, but it is always a good day to reflect.
In this season of resurrection, what are the dead places in you that the Spirit might bring new life?
What are the beliefs and attitudes that the Spirit might transform? Who are the people the Spirit might be working to change your mind about?

As Easter leads us toward Pentecost, this is my prayer for us all:
May we experience the uncomfortable, unpredictable, and unfathomable Spirit of God. And may we have the courage to change our minds and echo Peter’s words, “Who are we to stand in God’s way?” Amen.

See…

I don’t know if you ever noticed, but every member of our family wears corrective eye wear of some sort – either glasses or contact lenses. Over the course of the last several weeks, we have received reminder post cards for our annual eye exams. You’re familiar with those reminders, yes? My kids look forward to their eye exams, because it usually means a new pair of glasses. Thankfully, eye glasses are high fashion these days.

When I was a little girl, however, that was not the case! I hated wearing glasses. Kids made fun of me and called me “four eyes.” They slid down my nose in the summertime when I got sweaty. My parents made me wear a strap to play basketball and volleyball. I was not a pretty girl, and those dumb glasses certainly didn’t help. Adjusting to life with glasses was difficult, but I had to wear them to see. Without them, I saw very little.

Leading up to and during adolescence, my vision changed rapidly, requiring adjustment to my prescription lenses and frequent visits to the optometrist. For a couple years, my lenses were being replaced every few months to keep up with my changing eyesight. This required me to pay attention to my vision, to be ever-vigilant about seeing.

Thankfully, in my twenties my prescription stabilized. I resumed a yearly eye exam like a normal person. In my thirties, I slid out of that routine and grew a bit complacent as my vision remained the same for many years. When I went for an exam at forty, the optometrist asked if I had any difficulty reading. “No change!” – I was emphatic.

Last year I began to notice major eye fatigue in spite of seeing just fine, mind you, so I brought it up at my exam. The optometrist asked my age (of all things!), then proceeded with the check-up.

He put my prescription in his machine and pointed down to the eye chart. “See. This is what you’ve been seeing for the last many years.” he said.

No problem! I could see the chart.

Then, he placed a card with the tiniest letters I’ve never seen (I bet you couldn’t see them either!) just a few inches from my eyes and adjusted his machine once more. “Now, see!” he said.

It was clear and sharp, even the tiniest letters. My mouth may or may not have fallen open in disbelief.

“See? Can you see?” he said. “This is what your reading vision can be with new bifocal lenses. Perhaps your eyes are tired because you cannot see.”

Huh. My eyes had been working so hard to continue seeing through old lenses that they were dried out and exhausted. I had grown accustomed to my limited vision, so comfortable in fact, that I could not imagine the possibility of clearer sight. Not only did my limited vision keep me from aspiring to see more clearly, but it also stole the joy I derived from being a reader and writer. I had been avoiding the reading and writing, which I love and which are a large part of my call because I had tired eyes. I needed new sight; there was no way around it. As difficult as it was for me to admit and accept, bifocals were the answer. To be my very best me and to make my unique contribution to the world, I had to be able to see.

See – it’s a little word with huge implications. It can simply refer to sight, as in “look.” It can draw our attention, as in “behold.” It can ask us to understand, as in “perceive or recognize.”

American Baptist Women have charted a three-year course to explore all the ways in which they might be called to “see” – themselves, the world, and the Triune God. Today in our short time together, I’d like us to consider “see” in the same three ways my optometrist evaluated my vision.

See. See! See?

But first, our Scripture. We will see and hear it through multiple translations.

The Word of the Lord from Isaiah 42:9…

See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them. (NRSV)

The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
but I’m declaring new things.
Before they even appear,
I tell you about them. (CEB)

Isaiah 43:18-19a…

“But forget all that—
it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? (NLT)

Don’t remember the prior things;
don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? (CEB)

The prophet has issued Israel a passionate reminder for a vision exam. Through Isaiah, God repeatedly calls the people to see – with their eyes, their hearts, their minds. Remember, if you will, that the people of Israel have been carried off to Babylon; they are captives living in exile under the rule of a foreign king. The older generation had been dragged away from their homes and from the religious ritual of Jerusalem’s temple. They lost their symbols, their land, and their temple. The people don’t know what to do, so they lament, mourn, and grieve for their past. This is a people in despair who believe that they’ve been forgotten, forsaken, and abandoned by God. The younger generation has been born and raised in Babylon; they have no national memory except for what their elders share. The youngers are comfortably entrenched in this world; they’ve seen no evidence of God’s presence. They are skeptical, no less abandoned by God than their parents and grandparents.

In response to their forsakenness, Isaiah brings a word from the Lord. It is indeed a word of hope in the end, but first it calls the people to account.

See. Look. Isaiah says to ancient Israel. The former things have come to pass. God fulfilled the promise to Abraham. God delivered you from Egypt and led you through the wilderness. God raised up judges and granted your request for a king. God has preserved you in exile. You have quite literally “seen it all.” But in these days in this strange place, God is preparing to do a new thing. See.

See! Behold! Isaiah says to ancient Israel. God is even now, while you live outside your homeland amid foreign customs and other religious traditions, doing a new thing. God has already begun a new work, declaring something never seen before. But, here’s the key to seeing it: you can’t see what’s new looking through the lens of ancient history. The past is past, over and done. You must leave it behind. See!

See? Don’t you get it? Isaiah says to ancient Israel. God’s new thing sprouts up right in front of you. It has even already begun. God is at work in Babylon, preparing to deliver and set you free. A foreign culture and strange customs do not diminish God’s power to renew and redeem. God is still God. God is the creator and maker of all things, the Living God. See?

God’s charge to ancient Israel and likewise to us is not unlike the optometrist’s charge to me. We can insist on seeing ourselves, each other, our church, our community, and our world the way we’ve always seen: risking the strain, fatigue, and lack of clarity that comes from looking through old lenses. Or, we can embrace a new way of seeing.

In Israel’s case, God brought deliverance through King Cyrus of Persia who conquered the Babylonians. I’m certain the people of Israel never dreamed that rescue from one foreign ruler would come through another foreign king. That was a new idea for them. As unexpected, unpredictable, and unimaginable as that was, it was God’s plan.

I wonder if we aren’t a lot like ancient Israel. This church, the Gage Park Baptist community of faith, has probably seen it all. We were founded in 1949 during the height of American Christianity. We were on the western edge of a growing capital city in a new residential neighborhood. We were the new thing, and we were doing new things.

Consider for a moment some of the things that this church has “seen” through the years. Are there any significant events that stick out in your mind? Now think about faithful lay leaders and pastors. Who comes to mind?

Thank you for sharing those significant events and leaders.

Now, hear Isaiah’s blunt admonition to Israel. “Forget the former things.” “Leave the past in the past.” I imagine they didn’t want to hear those words anymore than I wanted to be told I needed bifocals. But they were necessary.

We should consider the possibility that God also speaks to us, saying “Forget the former things, and leave the past in the past.” We will never reach the generations that come after us with the gospel of joy if all we do is lament for a world and a church that no longer exist. We can not pass along living faith in the living God to the generations that follow us if all we do is mourn the death of our traditions. We will never communicate Christ’s peace that passes understanding if we are continually waging war against change. Our world is desperate- not for stories of a glorious past- but for the reality of a hopeful future.

Remember, there is still a word of hope for Israel. “Behold! I am about to do a new thing.” I imagine they were uneasy, just as I was anxious about the bifocals. I was so stubborn, in fact, that I didn’t fill my prescription for a couple weeks. I Didn’t want to wear them, and I complained about them as I adjusted. The new glasses required me to let go of my old vision to which I’d grown accustomed and embrace a new way of seeing.

We should consider the possibility that God also speaks to us, saying “Behold! I am about to do a new thing.” That promise probably makes some of us nervous. Changing the way we see and do is difficult. It is much easier to view life through our old, comfortable lenses even if they render our vision unclear and leave us exhausted from all the effort.

But Isaiah was emphatic. God was already working on a new thing. The people just had to look for it and then recognize it.

I wonder what God might be calling us to see and recognize. We should consider that God is at work even now in places and through people that we never could have expected, predicted, or imagined. Israel did not expect deliverance to come through a foreign king, but that was God’s new thing for them. Likewise, God’s new thing for us might be just as unimaginable.

God wants us to see and recognize the new works of God within us and around us, so it must not be a secret. It just requires us to put on our new lenses and to really look at ourselves and our world.

Think about all that you are seeing on the news or in the paper or on the internet – both locally and globally. What are you seeing? As you think about what you’ve seen, consider the persons and places… where hope is lost; where violence is rampant; where war is commonplace; where hunger and thirst are real; where disease goes untreated; where education is limited; where dignity is absent; where joy is nowhere to be found. All those people, situations, and needs are opportunities to participate in God’s new redemptive work. We must be willing to move with God into a future that not only redeems us but also sets free a world captive to sin and self.

Today’s word is a reminder that God makes all things new. Our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof of that. If we’re willing to see (if we’re willing to put on our bifocals), God will continue to reveal newness in our lives and newness in the lives of all we touch with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Welcome to the Table of Suffering

Today we gather around this table of suffering. Yes, you heard me right. Suffering.

Now, I know we prefer to call it a table of grace or mercy or forgiveness or life. But when we avoid the language of suffering and death, we are being like Peter whom Jesus rebukes sternly.

Jesus is clear when he tells the crowd that to follow him means suffering. No one is exempt, not even Jesus. We can’t by our faith avoid it anymore than Jesus did. Instead, he suggests we embrace a cross. Faith in the cross of Christ is a faith with arms open wide enough to encompass all our suffering.

So, even as we come to this table to commemorate his suffering on our behalf, we proclaim that we will take up our crosses and follow. Eating this bread and drinking this cup, we not only express our gratitude that Jesus would become one with us through suffering and death, but we express our willingness to share in his suffering by denying ourselves – all those urges to preserve the perfect facades of our lives and to avoid experiencing any and all bad things.

Every life has significance. Your life is significant, not because you’ve successfully avoided suffering for a time or because you’ve covered your pain with religious platitudes or because you’ve held it together publicly. Our lives are significant in part because suffering matters so much to Jesus. He stands with the suffering in the most significant of ways. Jesus suffers, not to make us feel better but so that we know we’re not ever alone.

As a community whose faith embraces the cross of Jesus, we are likewise called to stand with each other. Suffering offers us perspective, changes our attitude, and stirs up compassion. Our own suffering, if we allow, has the potential to open our hearts to the suffering of others in our midst and around the world.

Sometimes the crosses that we bear do indeed weigh us down, but Jesus still invites us to follow him in cross-bearing. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we accept his invitation.
We will embrace the cross. We will carry each other’s pain. We will rejoice in knowing that we are never alone. 1

Shall we pray?

Lord our God-
Thank you for this table, which not only represents grace and forgiveness but also suffering. We embrace the cross today, believing that the arms of Jesus are sufficient to carry our suffering. We commit to following in his way; we will carry our own crosses and help others carry theirs.
Forgive us when we demand an easy road and practice a weak faith. Strengthen us for a faithful journey through suffering.
Bless now this bread and this cup that they might nourish our spirits and make us powerful witnesses to the gospel in the world.
Through Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.

1 Inspired, in part, by the following blog:

https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/bearing-the-cross-of-compassion/

Treasures of Darkness

My favorite time of day is the dark, quiet hour or so before sunrise. I wake early enough every day (only rarely do I miss!) to experience the sights and sounds of the darkness and to witness the gentle waking of the slumbering creation. I don’t turn on any lights nor do I make noise or speak, and I get irritable when others interrupt this practice by switching on lights or engaging in conversation.

Something inside me needs these moments of pre-dawn darkness. There is a rhythm in our world and within myself, and I am profoundly aware of it as I sit quietly in the dark. Before a new day arrives with its bright lights and busyness, I sense the nearness of God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that hovered over the deep in the darkness of Genesis 1:1. For me, these moments are holy, parts of a necessary routine that nurtures me both physically and spiritually. I must have them.

When evening comes, I welcome the dark once again. I prefer soft light or no artificial light at all as the day draws to a close. My mind and body operate in rhythm with the creation, unwinding as the sun sets and preparing for a good night’s sleep. Darkness comes like the softness and warmth of a well-worn quilt and the protective embrace of a baby’s security blanket.

This instinctual circadian rhythm of mine becomes problematic in the winter time, though, when darkness arrives early and lingers late. During this season, light and dark wage war within me. I hesitate to venture out in the evening, and I experience mild symptoms of depression. I long for and countdown to the lengthy, bright days of summer sunshine. I crave the light in the way I imagine an addict craves her addiction. I must have it.

Somehow, the desire for dark and the longing for light are both part of my nature; each has a role to play in my life. Neither is wrong or right, good or bad. Darkness has its own time and place, as does light; light serves its own purpose, as does darkness. For the sake of healthy mind, body, and spirit, I need them both.

In fact, all humans do. We need the darkness as much as we need the light. Darkness is essential to our physical well-being. This circadian rhythm affects everything from our body chemistries to our relationships.

New studies are being done, and scientists are growing concerned about the effects of our ever lit-up 21st century lifestyles. We were not created to live in perpetual daylight, and we suffer when we spend all our time with the lights on. Article after article has been written about insomnia in our culture, and the first piece of advice to cure sleeplessness is to turn off everything that emits light in the evening: tv, cell phone, computer, tablet, etc. Our brains need the dark to shut down, rest, and renew. Our bodies need the night to recuperate from the day; to get the most out of the day to perform and produce at work and play, we must give ourselves to the night.

So, why do we work so hard to stave off the darkness? Why the preference for light?

Perhaps its because we’re so dependent on our eyesight. We can see so much clearer in the daylight or by lamplight. When walking by day, obstacles are obvious and easy enough to avoid. In the light, we can see where we are and where we’re going. But at night without clear sight, we might stumble or get lost.

Perhaps its because we’re afraid of the dark. Maybe not in the same way we were as children, but we still perceive the dark as dangerous. Darkness hides, conceals, and covers who-knows-what. So, we plug in our nightlights and install our motion lights. The lights will keep us safe, so we think.

Perhaps its because darkness is so unknown. Maybe we are so consumed with knowing that we are uncomfortable not knowing. The unknown is unpredictable and untamable, and we like a certain amount of predictability and domesticity in our lives. We prefer order and associate darkness with chaos.

Perhaps its because we’ve been taught even in church and Sunday school that light is good and dark is evil. Consider the many scriptures that reinforce this idea.

Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. John 3:19

God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light. Ephesians 5:8

But what if darkness is not inherently bad or light inherently good? What if darkness has the potential to reveal as much as conceal?

When we avoid the darkness because we cannot see or because we are afraid or because its unknown or because we believe it to be evil, we miss out on the treasures of the night. Without the dark, we would never see the stars. Without the dark, we would hardly notice the beauty of the moon’s phases. Without the dark and relying solely on our eyes, we might not ever hear creation’s night song or smell the dewy dampness of the overnight or sense the hovering nearness of the Spirit. These are the treasures of darkness.

Our spiritual life as a community of faith is similar. We work to “keep the lights on” both literally and metaphorically… We generally prefer the well-known, well-lit, well-worn path over an adventure into the unknown darkness.

I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” She asks her readers to consider a spirituality that grows and thrives, not in the bright light of day, but in the soft glow of a deep, dark, moonlit night. She challenges readers to check their attitudes toward darkness, saying “If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we’re running from is God?”

The Word of the Lord today comes from the prophet Isaiah 45:3-

I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

Consider these incredible events from the Bible that took place in the dark.

In the beginning, there was darkness. God’s Spirit was there.

Evening always comes before morning; darkness gets first place.

God leads Abraham outside to look at the stars and promises him countless descendants.

God comes to Jacob by way of dreams in the darkness.

Jacob later wrestles with an angel of God all night long.

God reveals the future to Joseph through dreams at night.

Exodus from Egypt happens at night. God parts the Red Sea at night. Manna falls from the wilderness sky at night.

God speaks the covenant to Israel from within the great darkness of a cloud atop Mt. Sinai. This darkness, while dangerous, is a sure sign of God’s presence.

Jesus was born under a blanket of darkness and a starry sky, and he was resurrected in the darkness of a stone, cold tomb under the heavy, hovering pre-dawn blackness.

These are treasures of darkness, riches hidden in secret places so that ordinary people might know that the Lord is God and that the same Lord calls them by name.

When we focus all our energy on keeping the dark, unknown at bay, we miss opportunities to experience the great treasures of darkness that only come when we trust the Lord enough to walk into the dark unknown.

Today, I invite you to join me and Roger for a walk in the dark. After being with you all for 2 years now, we have learned about you and loved you, on occasion gently challenged you to think in different ways. Now, we sense it’s time to actively move in new directions, into unknown places.

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that over the summer we engaged in experimental Sunday school programming. Having recognized that the well-lit, well-worn path of traditional Christian education was essentially broken infrastructure, a group of us proposed a new Inter-Generational model. We had no clear directions and no road to follow. We chose to take a walk in the dark. And as we did, we discovered treasures of darkness: the treasures of renewed excitement and increased interest in growing as disciples of Jesus Christ. Our attendance has been phenomenal; the conversation has been meaningful; the perspective of a wide variety of leaders and participants has been considerable. We took a walk in the dark, and the road emerged even as we walked on it.

As a result, we are abandoning the old road for this new one. In two weeks on September 13, a new season of Inter-Generational Sunday School begins. Ages 5-105 will meet together in the fellowship hall to learn and grow together as disciples of Jesus Christ. One cannot become a disciple in isolation; we learn to walk in the way of Jesus as a community. So, if you’re not engaged with others in an effort to grow in Christ, you need to get involved. In order for Gage Park Baptist to become the Vibrant! Growing! Reaching! community that we said we desired to be, we must individually and communally nurture a vibrant and growing faith.

Tomorrow, we begin yet another walk in the dark. Roger and I began challenging you a year and a half ago to “Think Outside the Church.” We have these great visual reminders hanging throughout the building. Now, it’s time to do more than think about it every once in a while. Now, it’s time to become a congregation that does more than just worship on Sunday. Now, it’s time to follow Jesus into life-changing and community-changing mission by meeting the real needs of the world.

Tomorrow night we have an orientation session for this new adventure, Mission from the Gospels. We have gathered a variety of other churches who also desire to be outward-focused disciples, and we are going on this journey together. We will study how Jesus and the first disciples ministered to people, and we will follow Jesus by doing mission in our own community. If we are to become that Vibrant! Growing! Reaching! Church of our dreams, we must do some actual reaching. We take the first step tomorrow night, and we have only a sketchy map with a few landmarks to follow over the next several months.

Do we know exactly what this means for the future of our church? No.

Do we know if we can successfully flip the switch from being inward-focused to becoming outward-focused? No.

Do we know if this adventure will transform us into the Vibrant! Growing! Reaching! church of our dreams? No.

What we do know is this: if we insist on walking the well-lit, well-worn, familiar path, we will never know the treasures of darkness. We believe that God has a promising future for this congregation to be more than simply a worshipping community. We believe that if we follow God into the dark, God will show us the stars and fill our hearts with dreams. We believe that if we step into the unknown, God will part the seas and nourish us with manna. We believe that if we venture into the darkness, we will find all the hope and possibility of the newborn savior, as well as the resurrected life of the risen Lord.

Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century monk, said this, “if we decide to keep going beyond a point where our eyes or minds are any help to us, we may finally arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness.”

Come, let’s take a walk in the dark.