Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Awakening

Jesus is always telling his disciples and the crowds that gather around him to keep awake.

Right to the end, even in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is still trying to convince his friends to stay awake with him, to "watch and pray."

And they don't.
Or they can't.

Jesus preaches the need for watchfulness. This is often interpreted in evangelical circles and pulpits in terms of "the last days," the rapture, the second coming of Jesus, etc.

Certainly, Jesus is speaking about the coming of the Son of Man.

But isn't the Son of Man Jesus himself?

Jesus says, "About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son" (Matthew 24:36) right after he says, "This generation will not pass away until these things have taken place." (24:34)

In the words of Winston Churchill, Jesus (or, at least his message) is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

Mystery and paradox are littered in and throughout Jesus' parables.
They are not meant to be easily understood or singularly interpreted, lest we become only too familiar with them, lest we fall into the trap that we have it all figured out.

"Wake up!" is Jesus' resounding cry.

We may have been lulled to sleep by Jesus' parables and teachings. 
*Yawn* 'Yeah, we've heard that one before, Jesus.'

WAKE UP!, he tells us again.

In a way I love that Jesus' close friends don't even get him, most of the time. It makes the disciples wonderfully relatable for us. That Jesus has to keep telling them the same thing, urging them to stay awake over and over.
It must have been distressing, though, for Jesus. His friends, his closest companions don't seem to understand all he is going through, all he is trying to tell them.

And how could they? The words of Jesus are so rich, so thick with meaning. So wonderfully full of mystery and paradox. 
When the disciples first heard them, perhaps they understood them on the surface. Like we do. 
We understand the simple meanings of the parables, the traditional interpretations where we place certain people into character roles and come out on the other end with a nice moral to the story.

But for the disciples of Jesus (as it is with us), it may not have been until they reflected on Jesus' words and teachings--perhaps not until after Jesus' death, when they were left without their teacher and friend, when they began to write down the early gospels--that they understood the significance of what Jesus was trying to tell them.

And perhaps they never really grasped it, just like I don't.
The truth is not really something to be grasped after all.

Truth is something that is there all along, that exists and remains regardless of its reception, whether or not we awaken to it.

We catch glimpses of it when we reflect on the life and teachings of Jesus, when we allow the Word to stir and ruminate inside us, to open up new meanings and new understandings within our minds and hearts and spirits. 

We stay awake to the presence of God within us and within the world, even when the darkness threatens to overtake us.

"Wake up!," Jesus tells us.

Wake up to the sights and sounds and beauty that make up God's Creation. Wake up to the reality that God is present in it all, in us all. 

Walk from room to room, acknowledging that God is in each one.
Move from task to task, and claim God's presence in each moment and each effort.

Keep awake to the stirrings of the Spirit in your everyday life. 

Stay awake to the truth not yet discovered in the Word proclaimed and embodied by Jesus.

We do not know when God will come, and yet we know that God has come and that God is very near and very present to us always.

May I be stay awake and keep alert to the presence and workings of God in every second and every situation of my life. Amen.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Choosing Sides

"If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)
The apostle Paul here takes poetic license with Psalm 118:6, which similarly reads, "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear:  what can man do to me?"

God is for me.
God is on my side.

How often have we heard this sentiment preached, from political campaigns to military campaigns? From those in power to those seeking to overthrow the powers that be?
How often do we hear and believe wholeheartedly that our nation has God's allegiance?
How often have we, dutiful citizens such as we are, been the ones to hold this unwavering conviction? Maybe not in such nationalistic terms, but more privatized--as direct descendants of the divine promise that we have God squarely in our corner?

Given the number of wars waging in our world, dividing lines are being drawn hard and fast.
Loyalties to nation, creed, faith, and political party may predetermine the side on which we stand.

We choose our side and are confident that God has chosen likewise.

But maybe Paul got it backward.
Maybe the Psalmist transposed the phrase.

Is God truly in my camp?
Or must I choose to be in God's?
Do I have God in my corner?
Or must I move to the corner in which God is found?

The side, the corner, the camp, I believe, belongs to God.

We live lives of division. We build walls to exclude. We create categories in which some people fit, and others do not. We align ourselves with those who look, think, believe, act like us.

We draw hard and fast lines in our hearts and minds and communities, around our bodies and houses and borders. We suit up for war, prepared to defend ourselves and our land in the name of God. But the kingdom of God knows no such divisions or confines.

The kingdom of God was not gained by military conquest; it was not taken from the natives in the name of progress or destiny; it was not established by bloodshed or swindling.

This is our side, not God's. These are our ways, marked out in our history, not God's. We may seek to distance ourselves from such ruthless tactics but are guilty in our own age and time.

Though we may claim God's hand led us to such victories throughout the ages and today, we are mistaken.

Perhaps the voice of God says, "I am on your side when you are on my side. I am not on your side when you are not on my side."

God has told us where God can be found.
It is not in my corner.
And it's not in yours.

We find God on the side of truth.
We find God among the poor, for God is always on the side of the poor.

God is on the side of love, demanding justice, proclaiming peace, offering mercy and joy to those who live in fear and violence and heartache.

No, God is not to be found on our side.
But we can be on God's side. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that "our side" (whatever it is, wherever we find ourselves, however righteous we preach it to be) is not completely in line with God and God's kingdom. 

If it were, it wouldn't be a side at all. It wouldn't be staked off and carved out, excluding so many from its ranks, delineating "us versus them." 

For the side of God includes all, and is recognizable by its virtues:  justice, peace, joy, truth, love.

We have God on our side only when we are ourselves are on the side of God. When we are taking seriously our charge to love, to pursue justice, to speak truth, to show mercy, to exclude none, we can claim boldly that God is for us. Because we are for God and for God's beloved creation.

We are on the side of the kingdom when we break down barriers, when we mourn with the grieving, when we stand with the oppressed, when we move beyond labels and politics and categories of peoples and beliefs.

So, apologies to Paul and to the Psalmist, but I'm going to use a little poetic license myself:

"If we are for God, who can be against us?"
"I am on the Lord's side; I will not fear."

May I always choose love and truth. May I always closely align myself with the virtues of God's kingdom. Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Between Silence and the Word

In a week's time, I will begin a training program in spiritual direction at Kairos School of Spiritual Formation. I am both excited and apprehensive about this opportunity. I know it will be unlike any other schooling I've done. It's been a kind of un-learning process for me.

Spiritual direction requires less of my head and more of my heart.

I've always done well at school, because I've met it head-on, in every sense of the term. No, I've not been the most studious. Yes, I procrastinated on papers. But, for the most part, I fared very well using my intellect and brain power to get through, get by, and get around most everything.

Now, as I am reading, reflecting, and preparing for the beginning of my upcoming program, I admit to feeling out of my element.

Heart, not head.

"Silence is God's first language," wrote St. John of the Cross some five hundred years ago.

Silence, not sound.

Said another way:  the Word of God is, first, silent.

It's hard to wrap my mind around, admittedly.
I deal endlessly in words--written and read and spoken.

I've intentionally set aside time for silence these past few months.
It's not something I am used to or comfortable with just yet.
And, I've been challenged to notice, that even in my quiet, still moments of prayer, I am awaiting a word.

I keep an ear open, an eye out to receive something in return for my being silent.
Maybe for an insight I could work into a sermon or a blog post.

Can I be silent for the sake of being silent? 
Or must I receive something for my stillness?
Have I truly made space for silence or left open the possibility for mystery if I am, all the while, anticipating a break? 

And yet, there is a time for everything:
A time for silence and a time to speak.
A time for stillness and a time for action.
A time to give and a time to receive.
A time for solitude and a time being in community.

Jesus started many of his days in the same way. While it was still dark, he would go out (on several occasions, at least, up to a mountaintop) to pray. He would begin his morning in silence, stillness, and solitude.

When he came down, he would join his friends. He would preach and proclaim. He would heal and serve. Only after spending time in silence, in prayer and communion with God, did Jesus go out and speak and enflesh the Word of God.

Jesus struck the balance between silence and the spoken Word.

While I have challenged myself to daily writing, I am also aware that my words can quickly become empty. If I am writing only to post, my mind begins grasping for any insight, any illustration it can find.  I have found, as Jesus may have, that my words come up lacking if they are not, first, born from silence.

And this is a challenge for me. To re-imagine the Word as, first, silent.

Some days, this has meant that I do not write.
Some days, the Word does not come.
Some days, I do not look for the Word to come, although this is still a struggle.
I am so geared to expect a word, to form and create an understanding, a revelation out of my silence.

Some days, I am finding that I am to receive nothing, except the presence of God.
Glimpses of the Divine.
At work and at peace.
God speaking and God silent.
God present and God hidden.

The mystery ought not to be covered up with noise and sound and words and my struggling to make sense of it all.

Can I situate myself firmly, as Jesus did, both in silence and in the Word?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Buried Treasure

When I took up blogging, I challenged myself to write every day. I thought that meant I would add something new to this blog daily.

But I've begun to re-think that. I've begun noticing that some days I am more concerned with how my post is received or interpreted. I've started thinking, first, of my audience--a largely faceless crowd and one which I am eager to please.

And that's not really the point. I started this as a spiritual practice, a daily discipline for the word of God to be relayed somewhere in my writing. For me, through my own words, to point to the vast, far-reaching Word of God.

I don't want to lose that as my focus, in my attempts to receive praise or page views. I am, however, grateful you are here. And I sincerely hope that God can speak to you through the language I use.

So, I will write every day.
Some days, however, I will not publish those writings.
Some days, my writing will be only for God and me.
Yesterday was one such day.

Some treasure I will keep for myself. Just like some treasure you must keep for yourself.

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." (Matthew 13:44)

I'm sticking with this one verse. I want to keep it short and simple. It helps me to deal with one loaded parable from Jesus at a time.

I am struck by this person. At the end of the verse, the treasure is still hidden. The person does not sell all s/he has and then put the treasure on display for everyone to see.
The treasure remains buried.
I find this fascinating. 
Surely, there is a treasure to this parable that begs to be discovered.

So often, when I come across treasure of any sort, I want to share it.
And that is our tendency in this culture of social media--updating our status to explain all about the treasure we found, location services turned on to pinpoint the exact place we found the treasure, tagging ourselves and the treasure in a picture posted to our wall.

Or, I want to share the treasure with another because I have been led to believe that to keep the treasure for myself is selfish, sinful.

There is great value in sharing the treasure given to you, perhaps a word from God that I believe would benefit others.

And sometimes, the treasure is meant to stay hidden for a while, perhaps forever.

The treasure is given to me, and to me alone. Just like God gives you a treasure, a gift, a word, and it is meant only for you.

We must invest in our own field, take time to work our own soil, to get to know our own homes. We must grow and develop our own listening ears and observant eyes to find the treasure God has in store for us, even in our own hearts.

Do I believe that my field--my body/mind/spirit--is worthy of my investment? 
Am I sold out with joy enough to buy and work my own field?
Am I worth the time and attention it takes?
Can I spend enough time on my knees, digging in the dirt, to find the beauty that is there?
Do I trust that God finds my field a valuable place, a place in which God can abide and call home?

We are told, sometimes subtly, that other fields are more lovely than ours, that their grass is greener than our own. 
At times, I believe this lie. I am skeptical that God finds me worth the investment, finds me a safe and trusted place to call home, to bury and reveal treasure. 
And, if I do get far enough to believe all this, how could there possibly be a treasure that God intends only to share with me?

The word of God is revealed in many ways. Sometimes, we read it. Sometimes, we hear it. Sometimes, we write it. Sometimes, we speak it.
And sometimes that reading, hearing, writing, and speaking is meant to be done in solitude, in silence.
The treasure is not always meant to be shared but to be discovered, explored, cherished as sacred between God and me.

There is treasure in our own field. There is overwhelming joy in discovering this treasure within ourselves, within our own heart. There is even deeper joy in coming to find, to trust that God means this treasure to be held, kept by me.

The person who buys up the field with the buried treasure does not seek to turn a profit. This buyer is happy, not for thinking of the property's return of investment.
We sell everything, we give up "get-rich-quick" schemes (efforts focused on external stability, wealth, and comfort) in order to invest in our field.

The treasure, planted there by God since creation, lies within us, awaiting discovery.
The treasure is you. The treasure is your deepest, truest self in God.

So, will you seek your treasure?
And once you have found it, will you invest in it?
Will you love it, devote your life to it, hold it dear, and live into the richness and wealth that is yours as the Beloved child of God?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Weight of Waiting

I know that naturally I am not a very patient person. I do not wait well.
I am reminded of this often. Even when I can convince my body to stop fidgeting and running around in circles, it's much more difficult to stop my mind.
I have intentionally set out to explore and confront whatever my discomfort with waiting is and to grow into patience.

I'm beginning to realize that I have understood waiting largely to be a waste of time, a gap that could be closed if other people were more efficient. Maybe this sounds harsh, but it is honest.

I think we all typically see waiting as a time between two events. Expectant for the next thing to happen. Closing one chapter and opening another.
But what if we looked at waiting in another way?
What if we believed waiting to be an event in and of itself? Or, maybe not an event, but a time that is full of meaning and possibility?
What if we lived into the belief that waiting is worth our time and energy and investment?

We are so busy. We move quickly from one thing to the next.
We forget to take in the time and space in-between our projects, appointments, tasks and schedules that rule our lives.

In my rush to make the next something happen, I miss something deeper, more meaningful along the way.

Waiting teaches me it's not about doing at all.

We simply need to be in the waiting, to situate ourselves wholly and fully into the in-between. 

What does that look like?

"I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in God's word I hope." (Psalm 130:5)

Most often, when I find myself in a time of waiting, my whole being is not truly waiting or resting. My mind hardly ever takes a break. My spirit may be anticipating the next thing to happen--a phone call, a word from a potential employer. I like to busy myself with distractions in the meantime.

My whole being is not waiting on, resting in God.
My hope is not placed on God's word. I forget to listen for it, for that still, small voice that beckons to me.
My hope is placed in the future, the next best thing, the plans I have formulated in my mind.

But instead of making the next thing my focus and spending energy on something that has not yet come to fruition (and may never), what would it mean for my whole being to wait for the Lord?

What might I learn if I became still--in my body, in my mind, in my heart--and waited on God?

If I changed the focus of my waiting away from the outside world, my future endeavors, and toward the God who is at home and at work in my soul?

I am in a time of waiting now. I will begin a training course in spiritual direction in two weeks' time.
I am in the midst of a job search, setting up interviews and expecting call-backs.

Can I, during this season of personal and professional waiting, offer to God not only my time but my whole being?
Can I place my hope in the word of God, in the voice of God?
Can I allow myself to be still and present to God's presence?
What new word might God reveal to me, to you in this practice of growing patience and waiting?

God, help me to find rest for my whole being--body, mind, and spirit--in You.
Teach me to watch and pray as I wait on You.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Down and Out

"Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:23-24)

The disciples were "greatly astounded" by Jesus' proclamation. (v. 25) It was such an affront to think that the wealthy would or could be excluded from anything.
Not so different from our reactions and our world today, where we know all too well that money buys your way into any status, any position, any life that you want.

But Jesus says it is not so with the kingdom of God.
The world tells us the way to succeed is by moving up and getting in.
The direction of the kingdom of God, however, is down and out.

To be "down-and-out" is to be destitute, impoverished.
Surely, God can't want this for us, right?
After all, God wants us to have lives of abundance.
What form must this abundance take then?

God has a way of flipping a thing on its head, overturning the very systems and structures that we are told make the world go round.

Jesus answers the rich man, who had asked what he must do to enter the kingdom of God, by telling him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. The man "went away grieving, for he had many possessions." (vv. 21-22)

So, the easy translation of this:  money and material possessions are the great stumbling block for entrance into God's kingdom.

I have never been rich, and I probably never will be.
So, I could look at this exchange and be comfortable with my place in the kingdom of God.
No real threat for me to be excluded on the grounds of wealth and money.
I may not be destitute, but I am not wealthy.

But, if I am to examine myself fully, I have to ask myself, "In what ways am I rich?" "In what ways is my wealth (or better yet, my avoidance of poverty) keeping me out of the kingdom?"

Wealth, for me, might include success or self-importance. 
I could claim some success in life:  a good education at fine institutes, wonderful training opportunities, being affirmed by the people of God in my call to ministry, credentials in my career and my profession. All this wealth could make me feel pretty important.

The world has us believe that the way to go is up, always up--bigger and better is the name of the game. Not only by amassing possessions, but perhaps in pursuing a secure and stable career; keeping up appearances as smart, funny, interesting, distinct; succeeding in business, in academics, even in our faith.

We are told to make our way to the top. We are encouraged to make a name for ourselves, make a place for ourselves at the center of everyone's attention.
I confess to this temptation. My personality is such that I enjoy entertaining others, being out there, receiving praise and applause and popularity for it.

Except, when I get to the center, I've left the kingdom behind in the periphery.
When I am clinging to some place of importance, I forget that the kingdom of God requires me to be displaced. 
When I find myself climbing up and up the ladder of life, I miss Jesus along the way.

For Jesus descended the ladder of life, the rungs of society, all the way to the end--when the Son of God found himself a destitute, naked criminal sentenced to crucifixion.

Jesus made his way down the ladder of success and out into the margins of society.

It is there, in the dark corners of our world, that the good news brings about hope.
It is there, amidst the impoverished, that Jesus announced, "The Kingdom of God is near."
It is at the end of the line that we find the Messiah, the Holy One, in our midst.

No, God does not take delight in seeing us in misery or in abject poverty.
Instead, God wants us to move in a new direction, one which the world counts as failure, as worthless.

For it is when we move in this direction, that we find our treasure.
It is when we displace ourselves from lives of conformity and comfort, when we get up and move ourselves both down and out that we find God in our midst.
It is in the dark corners of our world that God is moving.

In what ways must I move down and out to join God at work in the world?
How do I resist the way of Jesus?
How do I avoid poverty?
What notions of wealth and success do I need to rid myself of in order to make my home with and among the poor?
Can I move, re-direct, and displace myself from a place of privilege to a place at the fringes of society?

God, move me down and out. Redirect me toward the dark corners so that I may find and usher in Your kingdom come. Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

With Groans Too Deep

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:22-26)

Jesus introduces this interceding Spirit, this Advocate, to his followers in John 14. Jesus assures that the Spirit will instruct, will remind, will remain, will abide within and among us. The gift of the Spirit is accompanied by another gift:
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." (John 14:27).


These things seem in short supply in our world today--from Ferguson, Missouri, to Gaza, to Ukraine, to  places all over our globe.

We are commanded to hope. We are promised peace.

We are supplied a defense attorney (Greek paraclete, as in John 14) in the form of the Spirit.

But what good is all that in the here and now?

How are we to be patient and hopeful in a world that is filled with anything but peace and truth?

How does our Advocate plead for us? With an unshakeable demand for justice? Energetic objections? An eloquent and a riveting closing argument?

Alas, no.

Sometimes all the Advocate can do is groan and sigh.
Just like us.

This Spirit (which God places with us, in us, among us) sees what we see, hears what we hear, feels what we feel, grieves what we grieve.

The Spirit is affected. God is affected.

I don't buy the argument that God is immovable, at least not in terms of .

Sometimes, it gives us comfort to think of God as all-powerful, unshakable, unchangeable, fixed and resolute. We find comfort in the omnipotence of the Almighty.

But Jesus promises another kind of comfort to those who follow him. John 14, which I referenced above, is sometimes referred to as "the comfort chapter."The comfort Jesus promises his disciples does not come in the package of a big, strong God who will fix everything for them. No, to repeat, Jesus tells his friends, "I do not give to you as the world gives."

The world deals in power and might. Strength and force rule the day.

The Spirit "whom the world cannot receive, because it neither seems him nor knows him," deals in another way altogether. (John 14:17)

The Spirit deals in presence, not power.

The Spirit bears witness to the birth pangs that make all of creation cry out in agony. The Spirit holds the tightly clenched hand of the mother in labor.

The Spirit of God does not wax poetic or orate in flashy, polished lawyer speak.
The Spirit of God groans and sighs.

The Spirit of God does not throw tear gas into the crowd, hide behind bulletproof glass shields, and carry ammunition.
The Spirit of God abides--with the crowd, taking up residence within and among the victims.

The strength of the Spirit is not measured in force. The strength of the Spirit is measured in God's ability and willingness to abide with God's suffering children, to be present in and to their pain, to mourn and weep for bodies of the Beloved lost to violence.

And our strength is measured in just the same way.

And so we hope, we patiently hope and pray for truth and peace to rule our world.

We groan. We sigh. And we wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Amen.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Generous Life

Kyrie Eleison
Lord, have mercy.

This phrase, in effect, makes up the ancient "Jesus prayer," uttered by the Desert Fathers so many centuries ago.

It is, in a sense, every prayer. 

We need God's mercy, God's generosity without end. 

And it is given to us. Without question. Without hesitation.

We ask, and we receive.

And more often than I'd care to admit, that's where it ends for me.

I ask for God's mercy for myself and my faults, and I receive it.

End of transaction.

But there is a third action God requires of us: 


And so I must ask myself:
"Am I a vessel of God's generosity? Having been filled myself with God's unending mercy, do I then pour that same generosity out to others?"

The generosity of God is not confined only to forgiveness, but God's generosity covers every second of our lives. With each rise of my chest, my life is extended. 

God's generosity is every breath.

And yet, how often are we like the "wicked slave" Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18, who, having received the pity and mercy of his master, seizes his own debtor by the throat? 

The slave is ready to extinguish his debtor's breath, ready to extinguish the generosity of God. 

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 

But we do not want to be played for a fool. We know better. We are not going to be swindled.

When we make this choice--to have our reputations as smart or tough over being known for being generous--we have missed the point of life entirely.

To be alive is to have received generously from the hand of God. 

When we withhold mercy, forgiveness, generosity from another, we withhold the gift of life--true, full, abundant life--from another.

In the same way God breathes life into our every second, we can offer the gift of life--a life free from debt, shame, guilt, vengeance, retribution--to our sisters and brothers who walk this earth with us.

God does not need us to be sharp and cunning, calculating who to forgive and who we know will never have the funds to pay us back. Those finely-honed business skills, so heavily rewarded in our society's marketplace, do not make a citizen in the Kingdom of God make.

Freely you have received. Freely give. (Matthew 10:8b)

Jesus instructed all his followers in this way. He also teaches them to preach to the people they encounter with this simple phrase:  "The Kingdom of God is at hand." (10:7)

And indeed, the Kingdom is very near and within us when we live out God's generosity in the world. When we show the same mercy and grant the same absolution that we have received, we bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  

Kyrie Eleison.

Lord, have mercy on our stingy hearts. May we grow in our awareness of the generosity that extends our lives, and may we, in turn, freely give this gift of life to others. Amen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Search

I am finding it hard to strike a balance between the pastoral and the prophetic. Between what is going on in here and what is going on out here. Maybe it will always be this way. Or maybe 'pastor' and 'prophet' refuse to be divided so easily.

I do wish to speak to the passing of Robin Williams and those issues of mental health that have moved to a more public platform as of late.

I start by professing that I am no expert in this field, not even a little bit. These words that follow are borne from humility and love, and I hope they are received as such. My words do not serve as an answer to life's unfathomable mysteries. My sincere wish is only that my words might reveal a greater Word of hope to someone who needs it, as they do for me during life's dark seasons. 

I know and love many people who live with depression and other mental health diagnoses. And some others still, who I knew and loved, whose lives were cut tragically short because of a very real, permeable mental illness. 

For many, it is not as simple as taking a pill.

For many, the darkness is too overwhelming.

It is not a question of their reaching out. If they were to reach out, they could not even see their own hand extending out into the pitch black that swarms them. 

Calling out to God or to a loved one seems futile.

The burden to reach out, to call out cannot be placed on them. They are so weighted down already.

When hope is gone, people start believing that life would really be better without them in it.

And so it is in the midst of the abyss, when despair seeks to swallow us up, where a word of hope is spoken. 

We do not have to reach out to God. God is seeking us. 

We do not have to search for God. God is searching for us. 

The onus is not on us to find God, for God finds us. 

I know I am guilty for using the phrase, 'my search for God,' or 'my spiritual search' in describing my faith journey. 

But truly, it is God who is on a quest for us. It is God who seeks out the one lost sheep while the 99 are safe at home. It is God who sweeps and turns the house upside down looking for us, the precious lost coin. 

Many times I have searched for God and come up wanting. I felt my efforts were in vain. And perhaps they were.

It was never about me finding God, but allowing myself to be found by God.

Again, this is not meant to be a curative sermon for those living with mental health diagnoses. 

It is simply a reminder to us all that God loves and looks for us. That we don't have to move mountains to find God. 

God is already here. Deep down inside of us. God may get covered up and hidden by other things in our lives. And some of these things--a mental health diagnosis being only one example--we have little or no control over.

We may have a hard time believing our self-worth. We may have a hard time believing that God cares or that God is looking for us at all. We may find the darkness so consuming that we forget what Light looks, feels like. 

This post is simply a word to anyone who has ever been affected by illness, by darkness, by despair. I think that just about covers everyone.

We can't solve it. We can't fix it. But we can show up. We can reach out, be present--even in the felt absence. We can remind all those we love just how valuable and precious they are to us.

It was never about fixing something or someone anyway.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Growing Faith From Fear

I've heard it said, and I agree, that the opposite of faith is not doubt.

The opposite of faith is fear.

Doubt comes from a lack of knowledge, a lack of security in one's beliefs.
Fear is a lack of trust--in oneself, in others, in one's surroundings, in God.

If the object of my faith was my theology, my beliefs about God, my creed, then doubt would be a great offense. But the true aim of faith is, quite simply, God. Giving ourselves over to fear (for any number of reasons), refusing to trust God, this is what keeps us from being faithful.

Fear is all around us and within us all. Though I am a person of faith, I am also a person of fear.

I fear...


being thought foolish or naive,


not being fully accepted,

not pleasing everybody,

missing out,

wasting an opportunity.

Our fears are often justified. Any time we experience hurt is reason enough for us to fear and protect ourselves next time.

Fear can be paralyzing. It can so constrain us that we never experience the depth and abundance of life God meant for us.

When I choose fear over faith, I show the pretty, intelligent, funny, conciliatory parts of myself to others, to God.

When I choose fear over faith, I choose to do it all--quantity over quality--so I won't miss anything (and wind up not being fully present or experiencing anything deeply).

Recently, I've noticed I choose fear over faith even when I pray. I seek to protect myself even in prayer.

Why would I do this? What is the root of my fear?
That God will not accept me if I reveal my temptations, my faults?
That if I keep my darkness hidden I can fool God into believing I am a polished version of my true self?One with no cracks, no lines, no flaws, no struggles?

"The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7)

Truly, this is a comforting thought. We do not have to dress up or doll up before God.
On the other hand, this may present as a terrifying thought. God looks at our hearts. Do we really want God looking our hearts over?

I've started thinking about it like this:  God is deep down inside me. So are the thoughts and feelings I try to keep secret from God. God's got a closer look at all my dark corners than I do myself.

God takes up residence in our hearts.

We may not find comfort in our own hearts. We may be ashamed of some of the thoughts and feelings we hold onto down there. Our hearts may be heavy with worry or suffering or grievances.
But God finds home in our hearts--imperfect as they are.

God invites us to open up our hearts fully, to be fully honest with ourselves and with God. To face our fears of displeasing God, of being thought a fraud of faith, of being turned down and turned away by God.

And when we open our hearts fully, when we allow our darkest corners to be filled with the grace and love and mercy and light of God, we come to find a home within the heart of God.

From God, we do not need protection. From God, we cannot hide. The challenging task of faith is to bring our whole selves into the open. And when we do, we rest in the heart of God.

God can change our fear to faith. 

Every time we choose faith over fear, every time we present all of ourselves to God in prayer, every time we decide to risk, our fears of rejection will be proven wrong.

Each time we bring our hearts to the heart of God, our fears lose their reasoning. Our fears lose their hold over us. We are left to rest in faith, in the presence of God.

May our earnest prayer then become one with the apostles' prayer uttered so long ago: "Lord, increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5) Amen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

From Belief to Trust: The Heart of a Child

"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

Jesus rebukes his disciples, who are arguing for status and prestige in God's kingdom.

They've missed the point, as they do so often.

Jesus, instead, brings a child in their midst and offers the child as an example for all of his disciples.

What is it about a child that makes her/him the quintessential citizen of the Kingdom? What childlike qualities are the disciples, are we to possess in order to become great in the eyes of God?

Surely, it has something to do with the rank of children in that Ancient Near East society. Children were not given a proverbial place at the table--all the more reason for God to set the banquet table exclusively for children and the like.

Yes, social status (or the lack thereof) is one such aspect of "becoming childlike" to which Jesus points.

But what is it about children's personalities, children's hearts that embody the kingdom of God?

Children are not self-sufficient.

From the time they are born until adulthood (and indeed, in adulthood), children require nurture and care. They also require supervision. They need to be held, in order to feel secure. They need to be in the company of trusted others, in order to feel safe. They depend on someone other than themselves to survive.

Children are not yet the hardened rationalists that we adults are.

To be sure, education is important, especially in our society. I wonder if we do a disservice to children when we hard-wire their brains to respond logically, methodically to all of life's problems. We come to treat all we encounter as something that can be solved, fixed, if we apply enough reason to it. We teach them how and what they ought to believe.

I wonder if we are teaching our children not to trust their hearts in these matters. I wonder how sentimental and simplistic this sounds to some of you--myself, included.
The message being:  'Choose head over heart; it will get you further in life.'

I am learning this lesson in my own life recently. I am coming to realize just how much I have used my head and just how out of touch I have been with my own heart. This does not mean I have been cold and unfeeling. I haven't. But, what it comes down to is that I have relied on my head to get me places in life. It's what we've been trained to do, since a very young age.

I have been educated and trained at fine institutions. I have been taught how to analyze, criticize, and deconstruct any argument or belief I come across. I have been instructed well on how to use my head.
I could make a good argument as to why I should be the greatest in the Kingdom. Choose me--here are my credentials. Pick me--here are my diplomas.

"Change and become like a child."

Stop answering from your head, Leah.

They say children are more open to the spiritual realm than adults are, since we have trained our minds not to believe those things we cannot see or explain or justify.

To live from your heart, as an adult, is scary. It means releasing our grip from our tightly-held beliefs. It means more questions and fewer answers. It is a kind of unlearning that God requires of us before entering into the Kingdom.

To engage life and all its complexities and challenges and equations with your heart instead of your head means a change in our faith--from learned and espoused beliefs to simple, childlike trust in and reliance upon God.

If we are to change and become like children, as Jesus requires of us, we must move from our heads to our hearts, from self-sufficiency to dependency, from belief to trust.

May we enter into God's gracious Kingdom with nothing but the trust of a child. Amen.

Monday, August 11, 2014

What It Means To Be Free

"The children are free" [Matthew 17:26b]
These words of Jesus are spoken to Peter in response to whether or not they should pay the temple tax.

Great! So, we don't have to pay it then?

Not so fast.

"However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me." [v. 27]

A strange way to pay a tax, gutting a fish who was unfortunate enough to have swallowed a coin, but Jesus makes his point. Simply because Jesus has proclaimed freedom for himself and his follower from paying this temple tax to the Roman officials who levied it is not reason enough for them not to pay the tax.

Come again, Jesus?

Bear with me as I turn briefly to my undergraduate studies in philosophy in order to clarify this point. I assure you I move up to the head only for the purposes of moving deeper into the heart.

The concepts of negative and positive freedom are something like this:

  • negative freedom = freedom from; its energy is directed to external restraints and used to the ends of removing the chains of oppression
  • positive freedom = freedom to; its energy is directed internally and used to direct one's own life toward meaning and fulfillment

Jesus, as you may remember, read from the prophetic scroll of Isaiah (as captured in Luke 4) and proclaimed release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed.

Jesus' essential message was freedom--and not just freedom from, but freedom to.

Jesus' healings and miracles may seem, on the surface, to be examples of negative freedom only--freedom from blindness, leprosy, demons, paralysis.

But as with everything Jesus does and says, there is a deeper, hidden meaning.

This freedom from that Jesus provided to so many throughout his ministry also provides them a freedom to.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than with the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus cleanses all ten afflicted, and only one comes back to give praise to God for being made well.

All ten experienced freedom from malady. Only one, it seems, understood the deeper, positive freedom offered to him by Jesus--the freedom to acknowledge the gift of healing, to embody faithfulness and gratitude.

And so we return to today's passage in Matthew 17. Jesus has told Peter he is free from paying the temple tax. And yet, paradoxically (as is so often the case with Jesus), he is free to pay the tax as well.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I think Jesus' somewhat convoluted reply to Peter has something to do with breaking tradition.

Jesus is the Son of God after all, and, as such, he is free from all impositions of the Roman domination system.

Jesus is also the Son of Man, the son of Mary, a citizen of Judea, a Jew by birth and by faith. His family and friends pay this tax. They are made to pay the tax. They do not, perhaps cannot, feel the freedom from Roman oppression like Jesus does. At the risk of being thought a rebel without a cause, Jesus tells Peter that he should and will pay the temple tax"so that we do not give offense to them."

Jesus recognizes freedom to be more than his ability simply to do whatever he pleases. There is a danger to practicing this kind of negative freedom.

He uses his positive freedom in a positive way--to show himself to be in solidarity with his neighbors, to teach his disciples a more beneficial use of their newfound freedom, to refuse to offend others by breaking tradition for the sake of simply breaking tradition.

Jesus offers his followers freedom from captivity and oppression. Jesus, in turn, offers us freedom to live out our lives in faithfulness and obedience.

This freedom to obey is not ordered to us by mandate, law, or commandment.
Our freedom to obey is simply our response to what Jesus has already given us--freedom from the powers of sin and death.

Jesus surely had the freedom to say 'no'--not just to the temple tax, but to the agony of the crucifixion. And yet, he prayed, 'Not my will, but Yours.' His freedom from the cross was transformed into a freedom to take up the cross.

May we be found so faithful to take up our crosses and follow Jesus and, therein, find the fullness of freedom.

"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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Between Shadow and Light

"The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land where death casts its shadow,
    a light will shine." (Isaiah 9:2; cf. Matthew 4:16)

God revealed as light


"Guard me as the apple of your eye;
      hide me in the shadow of your wings,"(Psalm 17:8)

" the shadow of your wings I sing for joy." (Psalm 63:7)

"You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
      who abide in the shadow of the Almighty....
[God] will cover you with his pinions,
      and under [God's] wings you will find refuge." (Psalm 91:1, 4a)

God's presence in shadow


Can there be shadow without light?
Is there a light which casts no shadow?

God is felt and found in darkness. God is not felt and not found in darkness.

God is loud, and God is silent.

God bursts forth in dazzling brightness, and God shrinks back in shadow.

God is hidden, and yet God is begging to be found.

Or, better yet, perhaps God is out to find me, you, us.

I am finding in this season--one in which I am intentionally deepening my spiritual life through meditation, prayer, reading, contemplation, and writing--that all these can be true of God. And yet, none of them fully so. 

My ideas of God cannot hold, contain, or control God. 

And having a "right" theology is not what is asked of me anyway.

The objective of faithfulness is not understanding God.

What is asked of me, of us, as people of faith, is to be found by God. To be found faithful is to have an open spirit and a trusting heart. A calculating mind is not a necessity. Our minds must be willing to receive new information about God, paradoxical and seemingly nonsensical. 

Oh God, make us ready to receive You. May we be found by You and sense Your presence in both light and shadow.


*Many of my thoughts today are from reading Henri Nouwen's Spiritual Direction:  Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, especially pp. 77-81.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Make It Last

We all want an experience. Something we can hold on to. Something that will hold on to us when darkness falls, when we are lost in wilderness. Some light we can point to, recounting its brilliance to others, to convince them of our faith.

We want to make that experience last and last. We want to stay on the mountaintop forever. We want to stay in the place where we have encountered God.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain in front of his three closest friends, their first reaction was    this exactly [Matt. 17:1-9]. Peter wanted to pitch tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah up there. He wanted to stay--or at least make them stay.

Somewhere in his mind, Peter knew he'd have to go back down the mountain at some point.
But maybe, just maybe, he could recreate this feeling, this miracle again if he could just keep these revelations up there.

But even while Peter was suggesting his plan, his excitement turned to fear. Upon hearing the audible voice of God, revealing Jesus to be God's own Beloved Son, the disciples were frightened.

Perhaps the mountaintop is a bit too close of an encounter with God.

Perhaps we are more comfortable not remaining in the presence of God for too long.

Perhaps what we truly want is flashes of light in our world of shadow.

"Do not be afraid."The familiar divine message to humanity throughout scripture.

We desire closeness with God. We want to feel it intensely. We want nothing to break that most intimate of connections.

Until we can't take it anymore.

Something calls us away from the mountaintop. Distractions come in all shapes and forms. Even now, while I feel this truth resonate deep within me, I open another tab on my browser.

My personality is such that my mind opens new tabs all the time. It darts here and there. It holds on to so much information at one time.

On a mountaintop, in the presence of God, my mind finds freedom from its frenetic paces.

And I become uncomfortable with all that freedom from the noise. I grow fidgety in the silence, in the stillness.

And yet, God draws me in, by the heart.

My mind is set free from all of its knowing. I am called to know only one thing in my heart:  "Be still and know that I am God."[Psalm 46:10]

When I must return from my time of prayer, from my time away, from my time spent on the mountain in the company of God and the prophets, and go back to "real life," how do I carry the experience on?

Peter, like we all do, wanted to shelve it. If we remember where we put God and can convince God to stay there, we could visit any time we wanted. We could relive the mountaintop experience again and again. We could make it last. We could contain--and therefore, control--God.

There we are again. Our minds racing to find a solution to a problem that does not exist yet.

But then, we look up. The revelation is over. The transfiguration has ended.

We are left with God's voice on our ears:  "Listen to [my Son]."
And the Son of God tells us, "Get up and do not be afraid."

We are led down the mountain, back to the places in which we live and work and play.

But we are being led. We are not left alone once we leave the bright lights and the holy landscape of the mountaintop.

We make the experience last when we acknowledge the presence of God in all moments and in all things, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Breaking Tradition

Some days my posts will relate to the daily lectionary passage. Other days, it won't. Today, it does.

"Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?"
A question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes--the frequent critics of Jesus, his followers, and his ministry.

Jesus' retort:  "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?.... For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God"[Matthew 15:2-3, 6].


But I don't want to enter into argument here. That's not what I intended for this space. I've had my share of heady arguments, religious and theological in nature. Instead, I want to focus on the heart of the matter here.

Breaking tradition.

Some of us may have never dared to commit such an offense.
Others have charged, swords raised, at the fortress of tradition on our quests for truth and justice and exposing systems of oppression.
Others still have broken it without meaning or wanting to.

In all honesty, I have found--and continue to find--myself in all three camps.

There is a part of me that does not want to ruffle feathers, that does not wish to move, that wants to sort this thing out, that wants to make nice with tradition and all its adherents.

There, too, is within me a warrior who rails against structures of oppression and systemic evils.

And then there are times when I can't help but break tradition by simply being and affirming the person I was created to be.

My calling into ministry (among other things) was cause to leave the Southern Baptist Convention, the tradition of my upbringing, and find a more moderate Baptist group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. My "coming out" drove me, yet again, to find my place within a more progressive group, the Alliance of Baptists (for which I am extremely grateful).

I had to leave home behind a couple of times, but I never settled outside the Baptist camp.

"Why not just leave Baptists altogether?" I have been asked this many times.
And I think the answer has to do with breaking tradition.

Yes, I've broken tradition--both intended and unintended--many times.
I've let loose of structures that held me and that held me down.
I've moved out and moved on.
I may convince some people that I am good at breaking tradition.

But I'm not. It's an uncomfortable thing to do. It can be lonely.

Surely Jesus felt this kind of isolation that only breaking with tradition can bring. He felt it every time the Pharisees and keepers of tradition reminded him of his difference and unwelcome freedom of interpretation.

Jesus had many careful words for those who opposed him. He knew there was more to life than finding acceptance among those who held the power, who upheld the systems of the day.

Life demands of us certain breaks with tradition. But true maturation does not end in a reactionary stance. Jesus did not just shout, "To hell with all of you" and leave his Jewish faith and tradition altogether. (He did wipe the dust of some towns off his sandals.) No, he broke with certain traditions, and he held on to some.

There was something that caused him to both rail against and feel compassion for those who did not, could not break tradition. Jesus believed it possible to carry within both "the commandment of God" and tradition. Where tradition did not match up with the word of God (Jesus himself being that Word of God), Jesus exercised freedom--freedom from the grips of institutions and their commands, freedom toward prophetic action.

Jesus sought balance. He broke with tradition when he had to, when it was harmful and unhealthy to remain within its false securities. And sometimes the choice was made for him. Tradition broke with Jesus, casting him from its comforts.

May we live into the wisdom and discernment of Jesus, knowing when to break with tradition for the sake of the Kingdom and the Word of God. And may we also know when to put down our weapons and pursue unity and peace with those with whom we disagree.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Who Does She Think She Is?

Don't think me conceited. Anyone who knows me well will tell you this is not one of my faults.
Even still, I feel compelled to add this preface.
Prophet. Pastor. Who does she think she is claiming these titles for herself?
But I do not claim them for myself.
I have been claimed.
I have been called.
Like so many before me.
Like so many beside me.
It is a calling toward and within community.
And yet, my calling remains unique to me, the details of which have yet to be revealed and realized in full.

My calling--like life--is a journey of next steps.
I must take them, one at a time.
The most recent ones have included our move to Pennsylvania and my applying to spiritual director training.

If you'd have asked me in the not-so-distant past if I would ever live north of the Mason-Dixon line and/or entertain thoughts of becoming a spiritual director, you'd have been quickly dismissed.

And yet, here I am. Making home up north. Pursuing spiritual direction. Taking steps.

This blog is another such step.

As I find myself currently without a position of employment, I also find myself without an outlet for sharing my insights and ideas. I'm a pastor without a pulpit. I'm a prophet without a public.

So, I turn to blogging to you in this season of transition. I hope for this to be a creative space for me to share my journey, my ponderings, my sermons (of sorts), my prayers with you.  And for you, in turn, to do the same.

I am challenging myself to write something on here every day, as a kind of discipline that comes with community and accountability.

I hope you will come back often. More substance tomorrow.