The cost of forgiveness…

Forgiveness is the final form of love. ~Reinhold Niebuhr

Have you ever had to beg for forgiveness? Have you ever thrown yourself at the mercy of someone in power? Has forgiveness ever knocked you off your feet?

I wonder if begging hardens our hearts or cracks them open? I wonder what part power plays in our ability to seek and find forgiveness…IMG_0026

The Narrative Lectionary has gifted us with a series of challenging parables this lenten season. According to the Gospel of Matthew Jesus told these parables as a way of illuminating what the Kingdom of Heaven – that is God’s alternative world order – might look like. This week’s parable from Matthew 18: 15-35 is often called the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant but the reality is no one in this a parable is very forgiving… right before the parable Jesus tells the disciples that forgiveness has no limits… but the servant’s master takes back his supposed forgiveness in a heartbeat.

It seems such a challenge for us to imagine a God who’s love is not transactional. To imagine a being, a God, who holds such immense power, and yet, is willing to relinquish it, willing to let the very creation God so lovingly crafted to crack God’s heart open again and again.

Telling the Truth About Ourselves

So how do we forgive from the heart?

How do we seek forgiveness

and ask forgiveness

without belittling the pain?

How do we learn compassion

but never tolerate abuse?

It begins with telling the truth.

To unbind the wounded parts of our hearts,

and face the wounds we’ve inflicted on one another,

to face the grief of the world and take it in,

and take on our share of the responsibility and our share of the pain

is no small thing.

However,

if we can find the courage,

it will

set us free.

[silence is kept]

God Blesses & Forgive Us

Abandon your fear and leave your disappointment in the dust.

Believe in the abundant forgiveness found along this road

That leads to love.

Dig your feet into the earth and wait for the promise of spring.

Let your heart be broken open

like a seed that cracks open in order to absorb the nutrients that will bring it to life.

Get ready to lean in towards the rising sun

and open your eyes to it’s incandescent light.

This is the beginning of the journey home

to the one who piles grace upon grace.

 

(948)

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Rip into our world, O God…

Rip into our world once again, O God, and give us the good sense to be absolutely overwhelmed with joy at your proclamation,

 “This is my child, this is my beloved, this is my greatest pleasure.”

You know what I’m afraid of?

That in the midst of trying to name and attend to all the pain the Church has inflicted on folks over the centuries in the name of God, I’m afraid that sometimes I preach and paint an image of God that is so gentle, so simple, so easy on the eyes, and the ears, and the heart, that it is stripped of it’s power to comfort, let alone transform our starving souls.

On the day of Jesus’ baptism, nothing is simple. Nothing is easy. God rips into the world of human experience. God tears the sky and comes crashing through space and time to make an extraordinary claim.

Rather than a disembodied experience this baptismal moment is one of super-embodiment – it’s a sensory overloading, heart-stopping, genesis of life moment.

I wonder if Jesus’ whole life flashes through his mind’s eye as he is dunked beneath the surface of the Jordan. Not just his embodied life but his life that began at the beginning – when all of creation first burst forth. Beginning with that first infinite breath of God and on and on through his own life, death and resurrection. And ours.

I wonder, if just for a moment our physical reality, the one in which we rely because we can see it with our eyes, didn’t collapse in and expand back out as he came up out of the Jordan gasping for breath.

Here’s where we tell the truth about ourselves:

You call us to dive into your holy water with abandon O God,

To be caught up in the current of your love

And to be buoyed by your grace.

But your holy water scares us O God,

We worry it will overwhelm us,

We lose our footing and fall beneath the surface,

Pulled under by our fear and self-loathing.

We are lost. Any peace we might know is drowned out by

Anger

Hatred

Distrust

And Disbelief.

[silence is kept]

God Blesses & Forgive Us

Trouble the holy water in which we swim, O God.

Do not let its placidness lull us into complacency,

send your wild and holy spirit to agitate the quiet waters of our apathy.

Enliven the tide of justice,

stir our passion and nourish our resilience,

so that when we rise from your holy water

and step back onto the banks of our lives

we know our names our

Forgiven

Claimed

Beloved

and Sent.

(596)

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The Whole Story

A sermon about the time Joshua called all the folks from ALL over Canaan together in a Sacred Place and teased, and cajoled and invited them to remember who they are…

 “i imagine that yes is the only living thing.”
~e.e. cummings

Prologue: Since receiving the Ten Words from God the Israelites have traveled the Wilderness for forty long years… generations have passed, Moses has died and Joshua takes leadership… they have passed through the Jordon and are making a life in Canaan – “the promise land” and today Joshua calls the people together at Shechem – We first hear of this sacred place Shechem (in Canaan) in the book of Genesis when God first promises this very land to Abram… Abram builds an altar in this very place and worships God… before continuing his own journey.

The book of Joshua records their passage into Canaan in it’s early chapters and the 12 tribes of Israel have spread out across the land… Joshua calls the Israelites from all over Canaan to gather once again at Shechem to renew their commitment to God.

 

Covenant at Shechem

Covenant at Shechem

Joshua 24:1-15

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people,

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6 When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11 When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” 

14Then Joshua said, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Have any of you heard a mama turn to her sassy child… young or old and say, “listen up… I carried you in my womb for nine whole months, and I wasn’t just sick in the morning, but noon and night… my feet swelled up and by skin stretched to hold you and my belly grew and grew until I was as big as a house…  and then I gave birth to you… 18 hours of backbreaking labor to push you into this world.”

Or, if you were adopted like me it might go more like, “we waited and waited and waited for you, we thought we would never ever have children, and then we met you, and fell in love with you and we chose you and brought you home and made your ours.” And then she goes on…

“All these years I’ve fed you and clothed you, I’ve run you around and I’ve learned new math and had to remember old math to help you with your homework, I’ve taken care of you when you were sick, staying up all night – even the time you puked all over me, I stayed right there by your side. I’ve dried your tears and held your hand when you’re afraid… I’ve loved you and I’ve never, never asked for anything in return…”

And it’s not just Mama’s who do it, is it? We all do it. We do it to our parents and our children, to our spouses and partners and friends… we do it in community – in families and churches and baseball teams We love to tell and retell our origin stories, origins of life, origins of friendship, origins of relationships, stories of the most, the best, the worst… and we don’t tell them in some neutral or scientific way… we tell them in a way that gives them the MOST meaning and the RICHEST life and IMPORTANT purpose. We shape the stories in ways that describe who we were and who we HOPE to become…

I love this story from Joshua… I love the way his God sounds like my Mama… “After all I’ve done for you,” says this Mama God… “After I’ve chosen you and loved you, after I’ve rescued you and born you out of what enslaves you and after I’ve given you a new life; after I’ve shaped you into a community and fed you and nourished you; after I’ve walked, carried, led and conquered the world for you… now You’re going to worship another God… now you’re going to serve yourself and forget about me?!”

I love how Joshua goads the people… “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living…”

Just like a Mama, “Go on now… do what you want, pay no mind to me… I only gave you life.”

I don’t say this to dismiss Joshua (or our Mama’s); just like those who have shaped our stories, whether our actual mothers or other wise folks who have come before us, whose ancestors told them the story – Joshua is doing the important work of communal historianwhat Joshua is saying is, “Remember who you are… you’ve seen this God at work, you’ve heard these stories, you are these stories…  There’s no better GOD than this… will you choose this God? Will you love and serve this God?”

Joshua is one in a long line of oral historians that have been telling the story of God back to the community since Abram was first called to leave Haran and become a movement people. And each voice has a different tact and different flavor… for different times and places in the unfolding story of the ancient Israelites. And we can see how the people of God’s ideas about God – their theology and their moral philosophies, their ethics and their own relationships evolve through the voices of these historians… I want to spend a little time thinking about the story Joshua is telling and why… and what stories we are telling and why?

Questions to ask about this story and our stories:

It is a good story? And by that I don’t mean happy endings and simplicity…

Does it compel the people? Does it serve them? Is it life-giving? Does it bear essential truths about their identity and God’s identity?

What about the stories we tell about ourselves and about God? Are they compelling and life-giving? Do the bear real truth about who we are? About who God is?

What does Joshua include? What does he leave out? Why? What parts do we tell and leave out?

Why is God always on the side of Ancient Israel? Is God ALWAYS on our side in the stories we tell?

What does it mean to tell a story about belonging to God and claiming God in the midst of exile? 

It’s likely Joshua’s version of this story is coming from the dust and ashes of exile… it wasn’t written down in real time but in the midst of fear and doubt… in the midst of losing members of the exiled Israelite community to other rituals and traditions, to other families and cultures… this was a period of deep theological development, discovery and rediscovery – the Israelites faced the very real risk of assimilation after living for a generation in exile… These stories about their history and about God invited them to remember, to reimagine and reevaluate who they are.

Transient, homeless, enslaved, exiled, abandoned and yet chosen, remembered, loved… this is an identity that is rich in the imagination of the Ancient Israelites and has been their lived experience before… this is a story of hope… of promise that the morning does and will come, if only they hold onto God and one another. Imagine hearing these words, from a loving, goading, promising God, in the midst of utter despair.

I love the next part of this story even more than the first – in the second half of chapter 24 the people answer Joshua (Joshua 24-16-28)

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…

19But Joshua said to the people (nudging them along), “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins…

21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 

22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” 28So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

It’s not just Joshua that chooses God but all the people gathered at Shechem. And ALL of their stories are important, ALL of their voices are important. For those living in exile, this story is an invitation to renewal – to reclaim the God of their ancestors and the God of their future… of their own inheritance.

Story is power.

It can shape us and move us.

Or it can bind us and defeat us.

We have a different story than the Ancient Israelites. We are not exiles. We are not prisoners. But we have a story.

Joshua told the story of the Ancient Israelites as God’s chosen people – a protected people – but that’s not the whole story is it? Remember the time they wanted to turn back to Egypt at the first sight of the Reed Sea? Remember how they first greeted Moses when he came down the mountain with God’s Ten Words? Remember how they failed and forgot and lost? These parts are recorded in other parts of the Bible, and the book of Judges tells a less dramatic, a less violent story of how the people came to live in Canaan.

The first hearers of these words knew the whole story and so do we, but in that moment Joshua told the story they needed to hear most. And what they needed was a word of hope…  even if it was a goading word of hope.

Like that story our mama tells, it’s not a story we tell because it’s historical or factual but because it’s true on a deep and visceral level. She’s telling it to compel us to listen, to behave, to remember who we are.

Joshua charges the whole community to be witnesses to one another’s’ stories – he reminds them that he is not the only storyteller, that the combined voices of the community bear the whole story of who God is.

Telling the whole story as a people of faith in our time is even more complex. There isn’t a monolithic experience of God but there is a central story about a God who hears, rescues, claims and challenges. About a God that coaxes and pushes and goads us into covenantal life, into a believing and loving God in return. What we’re being rescued from might be vastly different here in Norwood Park, than it is in Englewood. What God’s claim on us means is different here in the U.S. than in Palestine. And how God is calling us to respond, to serve, to love might look very different as well. We must listen to the chorus of voices, to their differences, and their commonalities, in order to hear the whole story of God.

How would Joshua goad us if he were here? What would he say to nudge us towards God?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us hope?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us courage?

What are the stories we need to tell that will call us to action?

What are the stories that you will tell about who you are and the God you claim?

This is our story. And it’s an ongoing, living, moving, breathing, dynamic story about a living, moving, breathing, dynamic God of which our we are only a part… and we’re invited to claim this God as our own and to join our voices to it, to add our lived experiences – and to listen for the experiences of others until the whole story of God gets told. Amen.

(735)

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What’s Your Story?

Beloved community,

gather in and gather around,

incline your hearts and

listen closely for the story of who we are.

Add your own voices to

the story of what God has done.

Claim God for yourself

to worship

to love

to follow

to serve.

This week’s Narrative Lectionary Reading is taken from Joshua 24. In the unfolding story of the people making new lives in the “Promised Land” Joshua takes a moment to remind them who and whose they are. Whenever I read these “recaps” of the Ancient Israelites story I’m struck by two things.

The first is how rich and imaginative the oral tradition was in those ancient days. I long to recapture this practice in our lives and communities. Some might even say I’ve become a bit obsessed with the art, practice and privilege of storytelling. I love the digital age, the opportunity to learn and relate and be challenged in the context of the Global Community.

I love words and text and imagery but I want to balance these things with having a story, a story I’m connected to, that I’m implicated in whispered in my ear. I love the intimacy and the humanity of real-life storytelling. I can forget the person in a facebook feed is real and whole and has as complicated and complex a life as I do. But if you’re sitting across the table or standing in the middle of my circle speaking your truth into the open, you better believe I will see your humanness. Is it just me?

The second piece that strikes me is the piece about privilege. The storyteller (and later story recorders… and later story canonizers) have significant power don’t they? Who tells the story and how they tell it shapes the identity of the community, and the communities place in the world for generations. How do we decide what parts to tell? What to highlight and leave out? How do we paint our friends? How do we paint our enemies? Who’s side is God on in our stories? Do we ever enter communities where we are strangers or outsiders so we can hear the story from another perspective?

When you think about the stories of your lives and your communities how do you tell them? Whose version is ‘canonical’? Who has the privilege of the voice, the pen, the mic?

When I tell the story of my own life I love the version in which I’m a survivor, determined and independent. I love the version in which I am creative and interesting and interested. But there are pieces missing from that version aren’t there? There are moments I’ve failed badly, I’ve broken promises, I’ve been wrong, I’ve been self-centered or self-righteous (this might be my achilles heel), dependent or just plain ordinary (gasp!).

Is our faith community a place we bring our best selves and tell only our best stories? Is it a place we can hear the depths of one another stories without judgement or fixes?

Telling the Truth About Ourselves

We often think the easiest thing,

is to only share the good parts of our lives with one another and with God,

the career successes,

the sweet and easy parts of our relationships

the parenting wins,

that time we kept our cool,

stood up for justice

or had the best, right, funniest answer.

We are sure the world can’t handle our inner ugliness.

We are certain that we are the only ones who have failed,

that our relationships are the only ones to sustain cracks,

that we are the only parent who has let down a child, or a friend, or a stranger in need.

and so we keep the hard parts of ourselves hidden and our ugliness gets uglier.

We can’t imagine that God would embrace our trauma and turmoil,

we are afraid God won’t love our selfish, mean or broken hearts,

we don’t believe that God’s grace is so expansive that we can reveal our true selves

and so we don’t tell the truth about ourselves.

Blessing

But here’s the thing,

You are not alone and

healing happens in the light of day,

reconciliation is grounded in telling the truth,

and love isn’t love if it’s built on conditions.

God’s grace really is so expansive

it will hear and hold and transform

your WHOLE story.

Yes, we are broken,

but we are also beautiful children of God,

so take in this good news:

In all things,

you are seen,

you are loved

and you are forgiven.

Amen.

(619)

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Wade In the Water

A sermon from the climatic moment of the Exodus story just after the Israelites have leftEgypt. Pharaoh and his hard heart cannot let them go, pursuing them to the edge of the Reed Sea, even after the plagues, the darkness, the pleading and the dying, even after his promise to let them go… and so we find them here, Pharaoh’s army at their back and God’s turbulent waters lapping at their toes…

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29 (Narrative Lectionary, Year 1)

 For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,

but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

~Nelson Mandela

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29

When I was a teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen, my small, economically depressed, town in Iowa decided what would really turn things around was a water park. And so they upped the sales tax and built “The Beach (Ottumwa Beach)”… “The Beach” which was, more or less, an enormous parking lot with a baseball style concession stand and two water slides, one that went straight down at a near 90 degree angle to the earth, and another one that looped and turned, going inside the one indoor pool for swim teams and back out again. “The Beach” also had a kiddie area but the thing folks were most excited about was the wave pool… I had no idea what a wave pool was.

 I had spent every summer of my childhood, up to this one, at the public pool just down the street from my house. It was next to my elementary school and across the street from my grandparents’ house. I loved that pool, I loved the cheap snacks and the blue painted walls of the deep end, I loved the diving boards, both the low board and what in my memory was a towering high dive. But most of all, what I loved was the stillness of the water… there was no movement, no surprises, the depth was clear and the only way to get a wave was by making one yourself by bobbing up and down with your whole body until the water began moving at your command. I knew every inch of that pool, I’d learned to float and swim and sink to the bottom, I was never afraid. I was comfortable in that pool…

From the first moment I walk into “The Beach” I am not so comfortable… as an awkward teenage girl one of my favorite things about the public pool was that I could get in… up to my neck… the deep pool here at “The Beach” was reserved for the swim teams and the deepest end of the wave pool was only about four feet… I immediately walked out towards the deepest part and sat down with a friend… the water didn’t seem very wavy to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t really beach people in my family… In fact I don’t think my dad’s legs have ever seen the sunshine… we were road trip people, not water people. I had never seen, let alone experienced ocean waves in person.

So we’re sitting there in lukewarm water up to our waists and suddenly a bell rang and some of the kids started yelling with excitement. The wave started small and gentle… just a little bump in the water – I wasn’t impressed. But then it began to swell up over my face so I stood up but I couldn’t find my footing and the wave carried me off towards the back wall – I couldn’t see my friend anymore and I tried to put my feet down but I got a mouthful of water and even though I knew I could touch I started to panic and I went under with the wave, I’d never been in water I couldn’t control.  I had never felt more out of control.

The next thing I know there was another loud ringing and a boy, only a few years older than me, sort of pull-drags me out of the water towards the wading end. He is the lifeguard and saw me go under and hit the alarm, the waves stopped because of me” he said. “I had to jump in and save you” he said. As he leaves me still coughing at the shallowest edge he yells at me, “if I couldn’t swim I should stay out of the pool, that if I came back in I had to wear a life vest…”

I didn’t visit “the Beach” again that summer…

To some degree this was due to embarrassment, sure, but I’ve never trusted water in the same way after that experience. Water is unpredictable – it can be life-giving and nourishing… we swim in water before we are born, our bodies are made up in large part by water, we need it to survive, almost every civilization that has survived and thrived through history has grown up near large, life-giving bodies of water – even the ancient Egyptians in our story this morning, the Nile served as their life-source – water to drink, to raise livestock, to water fields, to move easily between settlements – it was as important of a resource as the slave-trade they had built their economy on.

At the same time, water rises up and destroys us. Flood, tsunami, torrential rains and hurricanes destroy the earth and entire civilizations. Water moves to the music of deep currents, heavy wind and the earths dancing rotation. Just a few weeks ago we heard the epic story of floodwater so deep and destructive it cleared the earth – except for one family.

And this is where we encounter the ancient Israelites… on the bank, stuck between the terror they know – in Pharaoh’s whip, and the unknown terror ahead – in the unpredictable waters of the Reed Sea.

The Israelites are terrified…“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Their hysteria reminds me of the kind of thrashing that happens when you feel as if you’re drowning… it’s a wild and desperate fear.

Can you imagine it?

What must it have felt like, to taste freedom, only to face death? I imagine their choking anger at Moses… and God, and their heaving despair at the thought of capture… of return to slavery. Their fear would have been palpable – their voices rising to be heard over the sound of the chariots at their back and the waves beating the seashore in front of them.

Moses says, do not be afraid. Stand firm… be still… it’s the most counter-intuitive move isn’t it? When you’re drowning? To stop flailing around and put your arms in the water.

There’s a beautiful Jewish Midrash that sometimes accompanies this story when it’s told in synagogue. There is another brave man standing on the seashore. His name is Nachshon and he is from the tribe of Judah… one legend says he is Judah’s great, great, great grandson, another says he is the brother in-law of Aaron. But one midrash telling goes like this, ‘While the people were terrified, immobilized by fear, Moses listens to God and stretches his hand out over the sea, but the sea refuses to part saying, no, I was born on the 3rd day of creation and I will not be moved for these people… why should I rescue them? They too have worshiped idols in Egypt. They have forgotten who they are.

And so Nachshon , from the tribe of Judah, wades into the water, first up to his knees, and then to his waist, and finally the water reaches his nostrils and just as he is about to disappear into the sea, the water rises up on both sides – the breath of God – the ruach of God, blows through pushing the water into moving, swelling, liquid walls and drying the land for the Israelites to walk across.

In this telling someone had to go first… someone has to harness their fears and give into the future and walk out into the troubled water.

Can you think if the liminal moments in your own life in which you’ve had to face your fears? When you’ve had to move forward simply because backwards wasn’t an option? Can you think of a moment you’ve stopped fighting, or worrying, or wrestling and given yourself to the moment?

Have you ever gone still and put yourself in the care of God, completely?

There are as many readings of this story as there are ears to hear it and tongues to tell it. For some, it is a story of liberation – of God seeing, hearing and responding to the desperate cries of the oppressed, it is a story about a God who will not abide the evil of abuse and terror. For others, it is a story about God’s power in the face of human fragility – a reminder that without God we are helpless. And for others it’s another terrifying story of death and destruction with God acting in ways we can’t quite comprehend.

The Israelites will spend the next forty years in the wilderness, sometimes eagerly and sometimes stubbornly finding their way, they will wrestle and push and pull as they come to know, to trust this God claiming to be the God of their ancestors – on each leg of their journey they will offer us a new perspective on who God is and how God works in the world… they will begin to tell stories like Nachshon’s story to fill in the gaps and interpret their own texts.

But for this instance, on the seashore, amidst the terror and the din of the waves, their story stands still for just a moment. They don’t know what their future will hold, they only know the whispered promises of an ancient blessing and they have to act. And so they stop flailing, they put their hands down and grab onto one another, they put one foot in front of the other and they cross the sea on dry land. And nothing was ever the same again.

In our tradition, this is what we say we’re doing at our own baptism… we stand on the seashore in solidarity with the ancient Israelites and we say, “Our story is not our own, these are not our waters to control, we don’t belong to the Pharaohs of the world, we belong to God.” We wade into the waters of our baptism, and we trust God’s life-giving, creation making, chaotic and powerful waters… we trust God to trouble the water in order to transform us and we emerge on the other side – not just alive, not just surviving, but made wholly new. Amen.

 

(941)

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I don’t want to go…

A sermon from when God drops into the life of one man and calls forth a movement people, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1.

Genesis 12: 1-9

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ~Lao Tzu

Here are some questions I have about this story:

How did Abram even hear God?

How did he know it was this God? His God? We’ve come to call our God the God of Abraham… the God of the ancient Israelites but that story has yet to be told… How did Abram know God’s voice?

How do we know God’s voice?? How do we discern when it really really God calling us out?

And how would you respond to a call like Abram’s?

I’m going to tell you the truth. This week. This moment. After the sting of the flood story still fresh in my memory, with nothing more to go on than an ambiguous blessing… If I were Abraham I’d say no.

If I were Abraham, I’d say: I don’t want to go. 


Think about all that Abraham has to lose… according to chapter 11 of Genesis his family had lived for hundreds of years in the land of Ur of Chaldean and then moved in his adulthood to Haran where they have just build a life together. He and Sarah and their siblings and his family and her family, they had land and livelihood, livestock and belongings… in other words… some amount of stability.

There are other stories of a call to action, for a people to migrate that make sense to me later in our biblical story… when we come to the exodus story – for sure – those folks are going to want to escape the tyranny of Egypt… and later when the Israelites find themselves under siege they have no choice but to move into exile… but this. This is the beginning of the story – this feels like the defining moment of being asked to be a moving people – a people who God will never stop calling to move, to transform, to change direction and to change the world, this is the moment God makes a promise that will take generations to unfold, a promise that still hasn’t come completely to fruition. It’s a mighty calling requiring so much of them… so much of us…

I think I might say: I don’t want to go.

How many of you know something about Dr. Who?

At the crux of this story that spans generations there is a constant character called the Doctor…  similar to our biblical heroes, this character’s age and how time passes in his story is unclear, but the story goes that he is an ancient character that has moved forward and backwards in time for something like 1000 years… I love a lot of things about this story… it’s a great adventure and I love the way it delves into the concept of time and history, what’s written in stone and how the story can be changed with the simplest encounter… but the piece I love the most is the transformation the Doctor goes through every few hundred years…

This is a TV show that has spanned years and if you were cynical you might write these transitions off as a clever way to change up actors and still keep a storyline intact but these transformations are written into the story as a heartbreaking necessity… there comes a time the world requires that the Doctor take on a new form, a new identity, even a new personality… his memories remain somewhat intact but he goes through a process of transformation… of regeneration… that requires him to let go a great many things go so he can live into the future…

This clip is of the Dr.… right before he is transformed (regenerated), and he knows he must go, and he knows he will still be, but he also knows that things will never be the same… I don’t want to go… 

It’s such a natural response when we face a great change isn’t it?

Can you think of the times you’ve encountered great change?

When you’ve made a move or changed professions?

Become a parent or partner?

When you’ve said yes even though you felt unqualified and unprepared?

When you’ve had to move forward into an unknown future?

What gave you courage to move forward? Why did you say yes?

Sometimes we go because we’re naïve – we go because we hear this story, we hear this promise:

I will make of you a great nation (tribe, family, community)

I will bless you.

I will make your name respected…

You will be a blessing.

We move forward because we believe in the blessing and want to be a blessing… and we trust a story that isn’t yet written and we have no idea that it’s going to be much harder and heartbreaking than we can imagine…

When I got to the end of my three years in seminary I sat with a panel of professors, my advisor and a couple of other Profs. I had invited… and one of them asked me towards the end of our lovely conversation, almost in passing, “was there anything I would have done differently?” and without thinking twice I said, “yeah, I wouldn’t have come.”

Don’t get me wrong… I loved seminary, I loved the way it stretched and challenged me, I loved the community that we created there, I loved the way my faith was deepened and my identity was shaped in what was really such a short but intense time… but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that if you had sat down my naïve and hopeful twenty-something, small town Iowa self and said:

“The next three years will be harder than you can imagine. You will be confronted by all the ways in which you fall short, you will have to face your own inner demons and make peace with the broken parts of yourself if you have any hope of loving others in a whole and pastoral way… your sense of call, your faith and the gifts that you think you’re bringing to ministry will feel inadequate in the face of the overwhelming loss and the deep needs you will actually encounter… your theological notions, all your ideas about who God is and how God works in the world will be deconstructed and put to the test and then in the midst of practicing ministry you will be invited to reconstruct something from the rubble, you will struggle to find your voice and hold on to it, your family will be stretched and your marriage will end… you will have to confront some things and let go of some things and you will rediscover who you are again and again.”

I told them, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have said, no, I don’t want to go…”

Isn’t that the true story of all the hardest and best parts of our lives? That had we known how hard the work — the job of parenting, of adult care-giving, of loving someone besides ourselves, even truly loving ourselves would be – if we knew up front what it would require us to give and give up we would never agree to take even the first step into the great unknown… and that’s crux of it… later on, after Abraham has already begun the journey, God tells Abraham, it’s going to be a struggle… its going to be a long, long journey, a journey that included bondage and exile, wilderness and famine… “days will come that I couldn’t feel farther away.”

I don’t know about you but there are days in which God truly does feel far away. We continue to fight with one another, in our churches and in the world… we’re still, thousands of years after this story is told and recorded, we are still arguing over who this blessing… this blessing we are reading and preaching and praying about this morning, belongs to. And it’s not just this blessing we fight over, the religious community is as polarized as the politics in this country. I read article after article about how the church is dying, how we don’t know how or simply don’t want to be relevant, how folks are continuously wounded and rejected… it’s a terrible story and I’m so tired of this story… of this life-sucking narrative… but in many ways it’s an easier story to tell than the great-unknown story staring at us from the future…

After Abraham agrees to follow God’s instructions, after he has already made his way south towards the land of Canaan God take Abraham outside and says,

“Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham trusted God; and God recognized Abram’s righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)

There are billions of stars, in our galaxy alone, and the ones we look up and see are light years away – some of them already dead and others just being born… what an amazing ancient analogy for our contemporary eyes… there is more to life, there is more living and dying and more hope and struggle, there is more time and space and creation than we can possibly see… and the only thing to do is stand in wonder… to be amazed.

Recently I was painting at a conference in Atlanta and Brian McLaren was talking to mostly progressive mainline folks (like myself) about some of things that we must let go of if we are going to live into the future God is calling the church… if we are not only to survive but to be a life-giving movement of God’s love in the world… I can’t remember everything he listed that would help get us moving but at one point he said, “we have to give up our cynicism.” And man, I almost dropped my paint stick… give up cynicism?! Dude, I love cynicism … I am at home in my cynicism… I am comfortable in my progressive, self-righteous cynicism… to tell you the truth, I’ve been cynical about Brian McLaren… it was like being doubly convicted!

And yet, Immediately, I knew he was right… If I am going to live a life of faith, if I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and believe God is calling us into a transforming future then I’m going to have to lay down my cynicism and put my wide-eyed wonder on and trust God.

Can we trust God with this infinite human story that doesn’t end with us? Can you? What must you leave behind in order to move on? What will you say in answer to God’s call? Will you stay or will you go?doctor

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Creator God – Sermon, Sept. 8 (Narrative Lectionary)

God is really only another artist. God invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. God has no real style. God just keeps on trying other things. ~ Pablo Picasso

 Our Prayer For Illumination: O God of beauty and delight, make space in our lives to celebrate all that you have made, to enter into the complexity of life, that which is easy and that which is hard, with your voice in our heads and your words inscribed on our hearts, declaring that indeed, it is good, very good. And may we carry your Word into the world until it is made so. Amen. 

Our Reading from Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Common English Bible – mostly) We read this as a community, as the story pop-corned around the room, told by more than 30 voices we watched it unfold in images on the screen accompanied by the beauty of the soundtrack from Tree of Life)

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness.God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.”God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.

There was evening and there was morning: the second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. 10 God named the dry land Earth, and he named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. 11 God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. 12 The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.

13 There was evening and there was morning: the third day.

14 God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. 15 They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. 16 God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. 17 God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.

19 There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.

20 God said, “Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.” 21 God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.22 Then God blessed them: “Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”

23 There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.

24 God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. 25 God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,[b]
male and female God created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. 30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. 31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth [a] day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.[b] This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Sermon: Creator God

So today we are marking the beginning of a new season… in my newsletter article last month I described it as a season of experimentation… in that letter I focused on this worship experiment that we are embarking on today, we’re not only going to see what its like to have multiple services, in the coming weeks we will experiment with styles of worship, with music, with what liturgy or preaching means… we are using a new lectionary, called the narrative lectionary that will take us on a journey through the whole arc of the biblical story beginning today with creation… I’m excited about this season but anxious too…

And our experimenting isn’t relegated to the worshiping moment… As part of our ongoing discernment our session is reading a book called Christianity after Religion… the author, Diana Butler Bass, is encouraging communities of Christian faith to enter into a season of exploration, of asking questions about who we are and who God is calling us to be. We are going to be working together to tackle these questions this year. These questions are exciting but also nerve racking when the answers seem hard to grasp – hard to hang onto…

And for many of us, it’s not just here at Friendship that we are marking the changing of a season. We are starting new jobs, new relationships, new schools, gaining independence, moving from childhood to adulthood, or maybe we are becoming more dependent, moving to new homes and saying goodbye to places we’ve long loved and called home. For others, we facing decisions about where to make a home, our healthcare and families, decisions that will shape our lives in the coming months and years… we are facing news, some joy-filled news and some heart-wrenching and we are asking questions – like we do when new phases of life confront us, when seasons change – who am I in this phase of my life? Where is God and where is God calling me? These are good and hard questions…

I wonder if facing a new season, looking deep into the unknown, unsure of what to expect is how God feels when staring out over the face of the deep… breathing that deep breath of wind… 

In the beautiful song of creation that we just told together God looks out upon the deep, sometimes described as dark and chaotic, and God speaks light into being… not so much light to expel the darkness – the story doesn’t tell us that it’s evil or out of control, just that it’s messy – one poetic rendition from African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, says,

“And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!”

So God sheds a bit of light on the situation… and that is good – having enough light to pick our way forward into the unknown, but God doesn’t just call the light good – over and over again God keeps surveying the whole of what is coming to life – the darkness and the light – and calls it all good.

Is this how we face the unknown? The deep darkness, the chaos in our own lives?

For some (what I learned growing up) this is the story of God creating order out of the primordial chaos, of God demanding its compliance, bending it to God’s will… exercising God’s power. And there are times this can be a comfort – imagining a God who can control the elements of the natural world, creating boundaries between sky and earth, darkness and light, good and evil… this is a God who can save and protect us.

But it can also make God feel very far away from us, not part of us, but some external force… it can also give us reason to approach our own lives in a similar manner… as something to be subdued and controlled.

And if we divide our world into parts – into two halves: order and chaos, goodness and evil, known and unknown then won’t all of our energy go into drawing a line in the sand and then won’t we spend all of our lives holding that line? Shoring it up, working to keep chaos at bay? Will we ever choose being curious over being comfortable? Can we face the unknown with something besides fear?

I wonder if there is another way to understand this “chaos” from which God draws life in this story.

What if we imagine God’s act of creating as a lavish work of creativity, of curiosity and the chaos teeming with a diversity that will make for a full life? Instead of a demonstration of fierce power, what if the power is in God’s imaginative act of entering into this raw material and coaxing it towards life, shaping it so that it generates and regenerates, what if we understood God’s “order”, not as control, but as a divine balance? God doesn’t do battle in this creation story, God doesn’t win while creation loses, God creates and collaborates…

Listen to the story… God seems to be singing to creation,

 “Let the waters swarm with living things…let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky… Let the earth produce every kind of living thing…” (Gen. 1:20-24)

Over and over again God coaxes life forth and invites all of creation to participate in it’s making… it reminds me of a gardener… In the process of planting a garden we plant seeds deep in the soil, and we rely on creation to work with us, to offer itself to the project of birthing new life, the gardeners job is to provide the space for life to take root and flourish… to take on a life of it’s own…

When this Genesis story says God made dome, it means God carved out a great expanse so that life could burst forth, God did not build walls but makes space, and this is the image that we are created in…

God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” (Gen. 1:26)

Can we imagine that we resemble God? That God invites us to the act of creating rather than control? This passage… to take charge of the earth, often translated as dominion, has gotten us into a lot of trouble through the centuries as humans have imagined themselves in the image of a God that subdues the world through violence if necessary, as one who forces the earth and it’s creatures to bend to it’s will…

But rather than dominion meaning a repressive or even just a maintaining force… let’s imagine it, for a moment, in the way God demonstrates dominion in the act of creation… by reaching into the depths making the way for life to flourish… we are created in God’s image as the midwife, the gardener, the artist, the lover, the creator…

How do we as humans made in this image of this God face the unknown? How do we survey the deep or approach the chaos of our lives?

Explaining our theme… In her book, Christianity after religion (that I mentioned earlier), Diana Butler Bass says that sometimes weforget that spiritual journeys are entwined with the Great I AM.”[i] We forget who and whose we are, in part, because we get caught up in the chaos of our lives, of the drama or mundane moments, and it seems that God is something very far away. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the unknown when it feels as if we are facing it alone.

Diana Butler Bass says that we’ve gotten accustomed to asking the ‘who are we’ question as if we are alone in the world, untethered or disconnected… and it’s an awfully tough question to answer in isolation. She suggests that we push the questions a bit further, remembering that we are grounded in a larger relationship with God; she suggests we ask ourselves two questions:

Who am I in God? And who is God in me?

In the creation story of a God who moves into the world and generates life from the inside out, where do we locate ourselves in this work? Are we insiders or outsiders? Part of the creative process? Co-creators with God? For the Israelites who first told this story it became an anthem of new life beyond Babylonian control, it became a protest of the world-view that kept them in bondage… “While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story rooted in goodness and blessing. Light came from the deepest night, and order from chaos. The sun and the moon and the stars were set as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time. God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it. In the midst of this loveliness, humankind was tenderly placed, and blessed, and called to be caretakers and stewards of an abundance of gifts.”[ii]

How we orient ourselves to God matters.

  • It matters when facing decisions about military action in Syria and how we relate to human beings around the globe.
  • It matters when we try to understand the violence in our own city.
  • It matters when we are beginning new journey, beginning new work and relationships.
  • It matters when we are confronted with chaos, heartbreak or crisis.
  • How is God working in me? How am I working in God?

We are going to use these questions through out our worship experiment, reminding ourselves that this isn’t simply an exercise in finding ourselves but finding ourselves in God and discovering how God is moving in us. What if we truly believe that we were made in God’s image, not just imitators of God, but that we live and move in God and that God lives and moves and breathes into us?

This week as you face a new season or settle into a place already well known:

Ask yourself, who am I in God as a creator… a creative force, a generator, life-maker?Imagine God is inviting you to generate new life… where, who, how will you be a force for creativity?

Ask yourself who is God in me as a creatormoving as a creative force, a generator, life-maker? Where might God carve out a place for new life? What are the spaces in your life teeming with the possibility?

Where are the vast depths and the darkness? Instead of facing them with fear, imagine this:

God smiles,
And the light breaks,
And the darkness rolls up on one side,
And the light stands shining on the other,
And God says: This is very good!”

Amen.


[i] Bass, Diana Butler (2012-03-13). Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Huey, Kate. Feed Your Spirit, Weekly Seeds at ucc.org

 

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Moving to a Narrative Lectionary and Other Experiments in Worship!

Interactive Worship Art

It’s been awhile since I’ve written on this blog, having fallen off the daily reflection horse, it’s hard to get back on! But I am excited about a new phase of life we’re entering into at Friendship Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor and I’m going to use this blog to share our experience.

This fall we started what we’re referring to as a Season of Experimentation (again)… I say again because this community is no stranger to experimenting. In their short history they’ve merged and moved and lived deeply into their missional identity. We currently worship in the Norwood Park Train Station on the Northwest Side of Chicago. It’s a great space but limited in size and so this fall we are embarking on a Worship Experiment!

Here are the components of our experiment:

  • Moving from one service to two at 9am and 11am.
  • Incorporating and experimenting with a variety of worship styles, visual and theatrical arts, music and liturgy.
  • Moving from the RCL to the Narrative Lectionary offered by Luther Seminary on workingpreacher.org.
  • Over the course of this experiment our theme is: I AM and we are drawing on two questions offered by Diana Butler Bass in her book, Christianity After Religion. Who am I in God? & Who is God in me?

 

This is a three month experiment from Sept. 8 – Nov. 24th. For the first few weeks we are duplicating the service from 9 at 11 but in the next couple weeks the services will diverge… I think.

I will be posting thoughts on worship, liturgy and sermons from the series here. If you’d like to learn more about our community or this experiment check out my article about it on our website here.

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Two-face Jesus? September 12.2012

MARK 8:27-33
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read this text I really feel for Peter. First, it seems as if Jesus is baiting the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” What are folks saying about me?” And it’s Peter who seems to land on the right answer, declaring Jesus the “Messiah”. This is no small title. For the first time in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been identified as the one for whom the community has been waiting. Peter steps forward and makes an audacious claim, Jesus is not simply a devout Jew, not just a really compelling Rabbi, not only a prophet but the Messiah.

For a people who can’t seem to get ahead, who are constantly under the thumb of the ruling class, who are pushed to the outside again and again this is a scandalous statement. It’s brave and crazy to imagine that finally, the one who will save them — who will bring them justice and win the day — has come.
And just as shockingly Jesus confirms this news. But then, in an even more incredible twist he goes on to describe what is about to unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Rather than triumph and power he describes a scene of violence and death. His death. He paints a picture of those who will turn against him, his own people, the ruling class, the government, even his own friends.

I grieve for Peter in this moment… this isn’t at all what he thought he was describing when he declared Jesus the Messiah. The one who comes to save them will be arrested and put to death in the most shameful of ways? Peter’s head must have been reeling when he pulled Jesus aside and demanded an explanation.

Have you ever signed up for something and then found out it wasn’t at all what you thought? It required much more from you than you expected? Have you ever believed in someone with your whole heart? Thrown your whole self into following and supporting them only to discover that they weren’t quite what you thought? Maybe you romanticized or idolized them and then they turned around and got real… it turned out they were more than what you imagined, more complex than simply meeting your personal needs.
In this crucial moment Peter finds out that what he thought would save him didn’t look at all like the salvation he’d hoped for. This was his first glimpse at what loving Christ would cost him and at God’s vision for reconciliation that didn’t entail a hostile takeover but instead included a road right through the valley of death before it would emerge into the beauty of a mountaintop resurrection story that could heal the world.

Sometimes it’s those crucial moments, when the rug is pulled out from under us, when the veil is lifted, when we’re confronted by the complexity of life and we begin to see the raw, messy and hard truth of it; in these moments we learn who we truly are and who we are truly called to be.

Peter’s life will never be the same, he’s looked into the eyes of his Messiah and seen the truth. This isn’t the Messiah that he expected but it is the one the world desperately needs.

May the many faces of Christ take you by surprise,
And stretch your imagination,
May the cause of love that is bigger than winning,
and larger than just one life,
turn your expectations on their head.
May this surprising Messiah who is more than we could ever expect
continue to bring new  life to darkest places in your life,
and healing to the world.
AMEN

Peace, Shawna

Musical Mediation
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Rolling Stones

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