20 December 2010

Meditation: "WalMart, Bodies, and Rainbows"

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us..." --The Gospel of John 1:14

"...and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, 'God is with us.'"
--The Gospel of Matthew 1:23

"...gather us in all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone."
--From the song "Gather Us In" by Marty Haugen

***
Dear Friends,

A few days ago I spent an hour ringing a bell for the Salvation Army kettle drive. This is the red kettle seen outside of stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I was out in front of our local WalMart, ringing the bell, wishing passersby Merry Christmas--especially the children who shyly came up to drop coins in the bucket. A confession: I really do not enjoy standing for an hour and ringing the bell. It isn't hard or anything like that--it's just downright boring. This year was no different, but as I watched people come and go from WalMart, I began to marvel at something. I noticed all kinds of people going by--some old, some young. Everyone was dressed differently--some in clothes that were fashionable, some in mud-spattered work clothes, others in clothing that verged on being downright shabby. A man who was missing a leg went by in a wheel chair. I saw large bodies and thin bodies, tall bodies and short bodies. On faces, I saw strain and weariness and--in some cases--smiles. I saw tattoos and piercings and wild hair.

And then I began to "look" deeper, pondering what each person passing by must have done and experienced and felt in their life--joy, grief, anger, anxiety, love, desperation, triumph, abuse, failure, success, goodness, honesty, fear...and on and on.

As this river of humanity kept passing me by, all while ringing the little bell in my hand, I began to feel overwhelmed, but in a good way. In an awe-inspiring way. I was being moved to marvel at that incredible goodness of God. I was simply overwhelmed by the fact that at Christmas we celebrate God's embrace of all humanity in its infinite diversity and difference (and this after just one hour outside WalMart in little Dallas, Oregon!). The birth of Jesus is God's YES to humanity, God's "Yes, I DO choose to come to you--right where you are. And my promise is that in Jesus I will lead you out of the wilderness and back onto the path that is abundant life."

A couple of days later, I saw one of the most spectacular rainbows I have ever seen. It was blazing in the northwest sky, the colors almost shining brighter than the sun. And as I thought of all the ways human beings have gone so terribly astray over the eons, it occurred to me that this rainbow was an incredibly appropriate Christmas symbol. (Perhaps we should hang them as Christmas tree ornaments!) The rainbow is a sign of God's promise never to destroy the earth again (go back and read the Noah story in Genesis). Instead, what we celebrate at Christmas is that God comes not to destroy this muddled, messy, mixed-up world, but to enter into it and renew it through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Who is coming soon and very soon. Praise God!

Merry Christmas to you all,

Pastor Jeremy

09 November 2010

Meditation: "You Love Me?"

"Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me, I will bring you home;
I love you and you are mine." 

 --Refrain from the song "You Are Mine" by David Haas quoting Isaiah 43 (see below)

"...you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you..." 

 --God speaking to God's people through the prophet Isaiah (43:4a)

"The source of love is deep in us and we can help others realize a lot of happiness. One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy."

--Thich Nhat Hanh

*****
Dear Friends,

A few days ago, my 2 1/2-year old daughter Margaret was having rough day. She was coming down with a cold and obviously didn't feel very good. Usually she has a sunny and mellow disposition, but on this day she was getting easily frustrated and would dissolve into tears quickly.

I was being as patient with her as I could, recognizing she was not her usual self. But at one point, as I held her and she cried and fussed over something that remained a mystery to me, my own impatience overcame me. I set her down, sat in a chair a few feet away from her, and said sharply with exasperation filling my tone of voice, "Margaret, I don't know what to do with you! For goodness sake!" And, though I could not see it, I'm sure my facial expression communicated my own frustration and displeasure.

And then the saddest thing happened.

Margaret, eyes filled with tears, body tense, obviously distraught, cried out in her little toddler voice, "You love me, Daddy? You love me, Daddy?!?"

Those words shot straight to my heart. In an instant, my own irritation and frustration disappeared. I scooped her up into my arms and said, "Oh yes, Margaret Anne, Daddy loves you! Daddy loves you very, very much. And Daddy will always love you."

That anxiety and fear so transparent in my 2 1/2-year old daughter still resides within many of us. "Am I loved? Am I loveable? Will I be rejected or embraced?" These questions--consciously or unconsciously--still tug at many of us throughout our lives.

And the great good news is this: the answer to those questions is a resounding "YES!" For the God who called us into being and came to be with us in the most intimate and vulnerable way possible--as a baby--will never forsake us. When we have our own grown-up versions of toddler meltdowns and during them or after them we ask ourselves, "Do you love me?" the voice of the Holy One whispers, "Yes, oh Yes! You are my beloved."

Henri Nouwen writes, "We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved us...That's the truth of our lives. That's the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That's the truth spoken by the voice [of God] that says, 'You are my Beloved.'"

May you claim that truth of your belovedness today and always.

Blessings on your week,

Jeremy

26 October 2010

Meditation: "Distorted Thinking"

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" --Stuart Smalley (aka Comedian Al Franken)

"I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, your God, listening obediently to [God], firmly embracing [God]. Oh yes, [God] is life itself..." --Deuteronomy 30:19 from Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of the Bible called "The Message"

*****
Dear Friends,

My beautiful nearly 6-year-old daughter Miriam is a delightful girl. But she has her moments, as we all do. Sometimes, when she discovers that an activity she really wants to do is not going to happen, at least not that day, she loudly wails with tears brimming "I'm never going to get to..." fill in the blank--go to the zoo, have an ice cream cone, play with my friend, etc. Never?! Really?!

I find this irritating until I remember what I sometimes grumble to myself in the morning, "Grrr...I did not get enough sleep. Today is just going to be an awful day..." Or, on a Sunday morning, with my sermon under-prepared and my brain sleep-deprived, I think, "Oh, worship is gonna be just awful today."

WAIT! Awful?! Really?! Does it have to be?

This is what my social worker spouse might call “distorted thinking.” Without trying to talk too much about something I don't really understand, cognitive behavioral theory tells us that how we think about something shapes our reality. At the risk of totally oversimplifying, this theory is pretty much the same as saying that if you think it's going to be a lousy day, it probably will be!

The solution, obviously, is intentionally thinking about the situation differently. So for example, nearly every Sunday morning as I ride my bike to church to participate in and lead worship, I say—out loud!--“O God, worship this morning is going to be GREAT! O God, my sleep-deprivation and my under-preparation are no obstacle to you. Worship today is going to be GREAT because YOU are going to show up!” And I can tell you that when I do this, when I specifically seek to counter my “distorted thinking”, by the grace of God it always changes things. God's Holy Spirit meets me where I seek to overturn my distorted thinking, and reality is shaped in a new, life-giving direction. Not always exactly as I would want, but virtually always for the better.

Maybe like me, you can identify times in your life when you slip into “distorted thinking.” I hope and pray, that by God's grace, you will choose to think about the situation differently, more hopefully, and invite God to meet you there. In that meeting, there is LIFE as God intends for it to be.

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

29 September 2010

Reflection: "Overheated Rhetoric"

The following post is a copy of what I wrote for our church newsletter in October. Though I don't usually post things of this nature here, I've been wanting to respond to the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" for awhile but struggled to do so in a way that didn't mirror back the anger and ugliness of those who were screaming about it. This doesn't come close to fully capturing my thoughts and feelings on the matter, but to be honest, I feel better for at least publicly saying this much. Just keep in mind that the original audience for these remarks was the small United Methodist congregation I serve in semi-rural Oregon.
***
Dear Friends,

I became increasingly dismayed during early September over the inflammatory rhetoric around the planned Islamic center near ground zero in New York. Provocative comments made by pundits and politicians alike were more calculated to sway votes and influence primary elections than to engage in honest dialogue about religious freedom in America. What was most distressing were the number of Christians who publicly engaged in “Muslim bashing,” making disrespectful—even hateful—comments about Islam and those who are Muslim.

Imagine someone who is not Christian, who has never attended a church, but who has friends or co-workers who are Muslim. Imagine someone who is not a Christian but has heard that Jesus taught his followers to love God and to love all people. And then imagine how hypocritical it would sound to them to hear people who call themselves Christian uttering mean-spirited, hurtful, inflammatory words about people who are Muslim, calling them “evil” and equating Islam with terrorism.

In our adult study this fall, “When Christians Get It Wrong”, Adam Hamilton has reminded us that many non-Christians are driven away from Christianity because of the insensitive, critical, judgmental, and mean-spirited things said and done by people who claim to be committed Christians. He also says simply, but I think correctly, that “the most powerful form of Christian witness is what we do when we express authentic love, compassion, mercy, and kindness toward others.”

Last Sunday at our youth group gathering, I shared these words from the book of James: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:9-10, 17).

As we head into the mid-term elections next month, the overheated rhetoric will fill more and more of the airwaves—and little of it, if any, will be “peaceable, gentle or full of mercy”—even from the candidates who claim to be committed Christians. But we have a choice, my friends. We can choose to embrace the way of Jesus by not engaging in such destructive discourse. We can choose to use our words to express genuine kindness and concern for others—even to those with whom we disagree. And may we be careful that we do not “curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”

On the journey with you,

Jeremy

27 September 2010

Meditation: "Letting Go of Outcomes"

"There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." --A.J. Muste

"The paradox is that you are more likely to get outcomes when you let go of getting outcomes: it frees you from the ego's grip." --Parker Palmer in the Christian Century

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."  --Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew


***
Dear Friends,

The quote above from an article by Parker Palmer really messes with my head. More than I probably even realize, I'm all about outcomes. I'll have a vision in my head of what I want--for my own life or for the church that I serve, and I'll throw that ultimate goal out into the future. And then, as a hopelessly left-brained person I will start formulating a plan, which often involves lots of list making. Then I get busy working "the plan" to get to the desired outcome. It's almost like a wrestling match--I'm grappling with my life and circumstances to try to achieve exactly what I think I want.

This is a very logical way to approach things, of course. Set some goals, line-up the steps to get there, and then relentlessly work to accomplish those goals until the desired outcome is achieved.

The thing is, I don't always get there and even when I do, they journey isn't always very enjoyable.

What I hear Palmer saying is that the outcome we project into the future is less important than the present, less critical than today. In his case, he's reflecting on his desire to become a writer, which emerged in his 20's. Rather than focus on an outcome that would "prove" he'd become a writer--say, getting a book published--instead he simply spent time every day writing. It was his faithfulness to the daily discipline of writing that made him a writer because (well "duh!") writers write. They don't necessarily produce books. It was his faithful commitment to that daily discipline of writing--irrespective of outcome--that eventually brought him the outcome he had stopped trying to achieve--he published a book.

This is true in the life of faith, too. We don't suddenly wake up as people who perfectly love God, neighbor, and self. If that's the outcome we desire, if the goal of the Christian life is to be made perfect in love (a very Methodist phrase), then our task is to try to love God, neighbor, and self the very best that we can--TODAY. And then we do it again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. And, eventually, by God's grace we just may discover that we have come very close to the outcome we stopped trying to grasp at in the first place. As Palmer says, somewhat negatively, "the faith journey is less about making a big leap of faith than it is about putting one faithless foot in front of the other, and doing it again and again. What happens as you walk that way is sometimes transformed by grace."

I pray that as you open your hands to let go of predetermined outcomes, God's grace will guide you, day by day, in the direction that will bring you life, and life abundant.

Blessings, Jeremy

07 September 2010

Meditation: "Blessing Hands"

"Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel." --Jeremiah 18:6b

"A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, 'If you choose, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him..." --Mark 1:40-41

"Take my hands, and let them move, at the impulse of thy love." --from the hymn, "Take My Life, and Let It Be" by Frances Havergal


***
Dear Friends,

One by one, they came extended to me. In pairs or singly, palm up or palm down--they were offered to me. Some were offered hesitantly, even shyly. Others were presented eagerly, confidently. Some were crooked with age and others straight and young. They were rough and calloused, they were soft and warm. Some were adorned with jewelry, others bore nothing but freckles and their God-given hue. There were scars on a few (one had part of a finger missing and another was encased in a cast) and, if not scars, then deep lines full of stories.

"May God bless your hands, that they will move at the impulse of God's love." And then the sign of the cross in oil, gently traced in the tender skin of the palm or across the veins and fine bones on the back of the hand.

Last Sunday during worship, as I blessed the hands of our congregation, I was surprised by the lump growing in my throat as more and more hands passed beneath my own. I felt keenly aware of the humanity of each person. I felt acutely the vulnerability of open, extended hands. I was completely overwhelmed by all that those hands have touched and done and suffered over each lifetime. Those hands have cooked and cleaned and cared, those hands have cradled babies and caressed loved ones. Those hands have worked hard, given rise to blisters, to support a family, to build, to plant. Those hands have created beauty, with paint, with fabric, with music, with words. Those hands have held guns in far off lands and held hands as life ebbed away. Those hands have helped and healed and, in some cases, hurt others. Those hands have prayed and clapped and been offered in love. So much life in those hands, all those hands I was blessed to bless.

Have you seen a time-lapse photo before? The kind where the camera shutter is left open capturing the blurred motion of the subject (like stars moving across the night sky, tracing their path in light)? I thought, "All these hands...What if it were possible to take a time-lapse photo of each pair of hands in motion throughout its lifetime, and then merge all the images into one?" I am certain that, if we looked closely enough at that blurred image, we'd catch a glimpse of God.

Look at your hands. Look closely, carefully.

"May God bless your hands, that they will move at the impulse of God's love."

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

23 August 2010

Meditation: "Ears to Listen"

"Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" --Jesus

"There is a distinction between hearing and listening. We may have functioning hearing organs and still fail to listen to what others are saying."  --Rodney Clapp

"We are used to thinking that it was light that broke the primordial darkness from which all life comes, but it was really God's voice...'Let there be light.' Sound precedes light; we hear before we can see."  --Stephen Webb (quoted in the Rodney Clapp article quoted above!)


***
Dear Friends,

[First, a disclaimer: I was prompted to write on this topic after reading an article in "The Christian Century" by Rodney Clapp.]

About six weeks ago, I destroyed my iPod. Not intentionally, mind you, but it got fried when I jumped into a swimming pool and swam for 10 minutes before realizing it was in my pocket. No amount of time buried in rice seems sufficient to resurrect it from its watery demise.

At first, I felt terribly bereft. I was so accustomed to listening to music or my regular podcasts during my bicycle commute, that I felt strangely lonely and out-of-sorts riding without those ear buds stuck in my ears. Slowly, I came out of it. But now, just a few days ago, I received a new iPod and can resume sticking those earbuds into my head and listening to music and talk whenever I want.

Except I feel somewhat ambivalent about it now. You see, as it turns out, I've discovered that it was refreshing and kind of freeing not to fill my ears with sound during my commute. Without the iPod, I could clearly hear things in the world around me. Without the iPod filling my head with sound, I could hear myself.

I've always had issues with being heard. Quite honestly, I quickly and easily get frustrated and cranky if I am talking to someone and it's obvious that they may be hearing me, but aren't really listening to me--aren't really taking in what I am saying. When I sense this is happening, I quickly feel like shutting up and walking away. What I never thought about was that maybe even I wasn't really listening to myself. (What a mind-blowing insight this was!) And somehow, my iPod had become a tool I used to distract myself from what was going on in my own head and heart.

I've always considered myself a good listener--but given this recent experience, I'm realizing that maybe I need to recommit myself to listening deeply--to the world around me, to other people, to myself, to God.

How about you? What kind of listener are you? I pray God will grant you the grace to listen deeply--with all your mind and heart--to listen to God, to others, and perhaps most importantly, to yourself.

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

12 August 2010

Meditation: "Choose Hope"

"Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God's guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness." --Henri J.M. Nouwen

"God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken." --Psalm 62:2

***
Dear Friends,

It is rough out there. Today I heard on the news that the number of people applying for jobless benefits is on the rise again and foreclosures are also higher than expected. The economic malaise that has gripped our country (and world) for the last couple of years continues to linger and cast its shadow. I also have been reading lately about how significant and inevitable the consequences of global climate change will be. Even if every nation stopped spewing CO2 into the environment tomorrow, it's not clear that we will avoid all of the negative consequences of global warming. And then I think about the number of people I know who have recently been diagnosed with serious illnesses, and if I were to dwell on it too long, I know I would easily get overwhelmed.

I'm not trying to drag you down! But I'm aware that these issues--that are so huge and out-of-control and difficult to address--feel quite weighty to me sometimes. I wonder what kind of world my children will inherit. I wonder if we human beings even have the wherewithal to make the changes necessary to avoid destroying ourselves.

For me, to avoid getting hopelessly entangled in all of this, I have to make a conscious choice, and that is to CHOOSE HOPE. Many people see hope as a naive wish that things would be different than they are. But the kind of hope that I seek is deeper than that. The hope I wish to embrace "is willing to," as Nouwen writes, "leave unanswered questions unanswered." The kind of hope that I find myself coming back to over and over again in times like these is the hope that God is indeed my rock and salvation, and that no matter what happens, God is all in all. These aren't platitudes to me, but rather sturdy anchor lines in a tumultuous world.

I hope and pray that, by God's grace, you will choose hope--and in so doing will find the courage to live each day in what is often a turbulent world.

Blessing on you,

Jeremy

***
The Serenity Prayer (attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr)

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

28 July 2010

Meditation: "Yesterday, TODAY, and Tomorrow"

"O God our Creator,
your kindness has brought us
the gift of a new morning.
Help us to leave yesterday,
and not to covet tomorrow
but to accept the uniqueness of today."


--From an order for morning prayer from "A Wee Worship Book"

"What time is it? Now! Where am I? Here!"
--Jon Bailey, my uncle-in-law

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." --Matthew 6:34

*****
Dear Friends,

My apologies for the long gap since my last meditation. It's been about two months! I hope to resume posting them more regularly now.

Last week, a team from our church headed out on a mission trip. We spent a few days in Lewis County, WA doing repair work on the homes of people who experienced a devastating flood in December 2007 and then another (though not as big) flood in January 2009. Each day, before our team headed out to work, we paused for a brief time of prayer. We used an order for morning prayer from the Celtic Christian tradition composed by the Iona Community's Wild Goose Worship Group.

The words that we prayed each morning (excerpted above) have been clinging to my heart and mind since our return. How hard I find it to leave yesterday behind! How hard I find it not to lean into tomorrow before today has ended! This simple prayer, which did not particularly catch my attention the first day, after repeated exposure, eventually wiggled into my consciousness. Now I am noticing anew the ways that I overlook the opportunities of the present moment. Each day is, indeed, unique. Each day has hidden within it opportunities to learn, to grow, to love, to cry, to serve, to go deeper (and to make mistakes!) that are unique to that day. One of the most difficult spiritual disciplines for many of us is simply being where we are.

Though I did not include it above, the prayer continues, "...take from us what we need to carry no longer, so that we may be free again to choose to serve you and to be served by each other..." What a helpful way to start a new day--prayerfully acknowledging the baggage we drag along with us and asking God to relieve us of our burden so that we can be free to love and serve. It's like praying, at the start of the day, "OK, God, here's the grudge I've been clinging to. Please take it so that I can be free of it!" or "OK, God, here's the anxiety I am feeling about my job/relationship/finances. Please take what I don't need to carry anymore so I can be free and available to others."

I'm thinking that this would be a great way to start every day (not just during a mission trip), to pray simply "Free me for TODAY, O God!"

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

13 May 2010

Meditation: "What's the Story?"

"O Lord, you have searched me and known me...you formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb." --from Psalm 139

"The interior life is not a question of seeing extraordinary things, but rather of seeing the ordinary things with the eyes of God." --Thomas H. Green

*****
Dear Friends,

I recently saw the movie, ''Date Night" starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell (two of my favorite comic actors these days). In the movie, when they are out on a date having dinner together, this married couple (Claire and Phil Foster) play a game called, "What's the story?" Phil will look at Claire and, nodding in the direction of people sitting at a nearby table, will say, "So what's the story?" On the spot, Claire has to create an imaginary, zany story about the people. The sillier, more outlandish, the better. Laughter, of course, ensues.

Sometimes I play a less silly version of this game myself. I'll see the picture of someone in the paper who has committed a crime, and staring at the picture I'll wonder, "So what's the story?" Or I'll see a person holding up a sign at an intersection asking for work or food or money, and I'll wonder, "So, what's the story?" Or even just as I watch the person in line in front of me at the store, I'll wonder, "So, what's the story?" And when I "play" this, I'm not wondering about just the factual information of their life--where they have lived or what they have done or who their family is. I'm going deeper and wondering about all the dynamics and circumstances and choices and influences in their life that have brought them to this time and place. Sometimes, when I do this, I imagine the person as a tiny baby. And it reminds me that they were once--as we all were--a vulnerable, helpless little child that was completely dependent on others. And then I wonder at all that has transpired between that time as a baby and the person I've just seen--which is another way of asking, "So, what's the story?"

We human beings can be so quick to make assumptions about people, to assign certain motivations to the actions of others, to judge them based on scant information. But human beings are so complex, too mysterious, that it really isn't possible to know another person completely. God knows us inside and out, but finite human beings can never definitively, completely know one another.

So when I find myself irritated by another person, or frustrated by them, or when I find myself judging someone, something that helps me honor the mystery of their humanity is to imagine them as a very small child and ask the question, "So, what is the story?"

Blessings, Jeremy

Prayer: Life-Giving God, we thank you and praise you for the incredible diversity that flows from your creative impulse. Help us to honor the mystery of the people that will cross our path today. Amen.

04 May 2010

Meditation: "For the Beauty of the Earth"

"Earth's crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God." --Elizabeth Barrett Browning

"I think the thrush's voice is more like God's than many a preacher's telling of the Word." --Evelyn Underhill

"For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise." --from the hymn text by Folliot Pierpoint

***
Dear Friends,

I am tempted to take the easy way out with this meditation, and simply suggest that you take 10 minutes and go for a walk. But don't just walk. Walk and notice and marvel at the unfolding spring around us. The soft green of unfurling leaves, the bright colors of azalea and rhododendron, the irrepressible growth of grass and weeds alike, the damp earthy smell of the ground beneath our feet. You get the idea--take it all in with as many of the senses as possible. Pause to smell a flower or inhale the cool air stirred by a stream. Touch the damp moss on a tree trunk or feel the soft, bright lime-green growth on a fir tree. Listen for the call of a song bird, or the migrating geese overhead, or the sounds of children joyfully playing outside. Maybe even let a spring shower dampen your upturned face. Walk for 10 minutes and take it all in.

Every year a miracle explodes around us as this corner of the earth emerges from winter--sometimes in a burst of regenerative glory and other times in what seems a maddeningly slow, yet inexorable process of transformation. But in either case, lest we take this natural metaphor for God's renewing grace for granted, let us notice and marvel at what too many of us fail to appreciate as we speed through our lives rushing headlong from one activity to another.

Life is irrepressible. Evidence of God's renewing grace is all around us. We are a part of God's creation, and when we take note and marvel and claim our proper place within it, we nurture God's life within our own hearts and souls.

Praise be to God!

Blessings, Jeremy
***
Prayer: God of Creation, thank you. Thank you for shouting out your grace through the natural world around us. Enliven our senses so that we might truly appreciate it all. Amen.

15 April 2010

Meditation: "Easter Fools"

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?" --Luke 24:5

"God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength." --1 Corinthians 1:25

"I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings." --William Sloane Coffin

*****

Dear Friends,

My experience of Holy Week (just a couple of weeks ago!) this year was similar to past years. It was a very busy week--I preached four times in eight days--and as Easter Sunday approached, I felt so tired and run-down, I wondered if Easter morning really would feel for me like a celebration of new life made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And as in past years, despite my own fatigue and what feels like spiritual poverty, Easter Sunday morning energized me and filled me with joy and hope and gratitude and LIFE. God is good!

The week following Easter, I came across a thread of comments posted in response to a newspaper story about recent scholarship on the resurrection. About 2/3 of the comments were dismissive and even downright disparaging of Christians who would find deep meaning in celebrating the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. The comments ranged from mild--"Easter is really a pagan celebration co-opted by Christians"--to caustic--"Christians who believe in the resurrection are out of touch with reality and delusional."

My first reaction was, honestly, to become defensive. But upon further reflection, I realized that those who would question the validity of the Easter message of life rising out of death--well, they have a point. Listen to the news and read the paper and the stories have little to do with life and much to do with death--war, violence, crime, abuse, disaster. When we take a clear-eyed look around the world, we have to admit that it is much easier to identify those places where death appears to carry the day.

But this is where I can't help but choose to believe something that appears to be foolish to those who cannot bring themselves to believe it. I suppose I am an Easter Fool. For I choose to believe that death does not and will not have the final word. I choose to believe that those places where I've seen new life arise out of the ashes of death are not the exception, but glimpses of the Good News that "He is risen indeed!" And not only do I choose to believe it, but I choose to do my best to LIVE it, too, by not giving up on lost causes, by seeking to find the light of God within people whose actions are detestable, by praying fervently for peace and justice to come to even the most hopeless of situations.

This is what "Easter Fools" do. They affirm, with their lips and lives, that no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, Jesus Christ is ALIVE and because he is alive, we are, too.

How about you? Are you an Easter Fool? It isn't always easy to be the fool, but in my experience, this kind of foolishness is a wellspring of hope and love and LIFE!

And that is an awesome gift to celebrate during this season of Easter.


Prayer: God of New Life in Christ, thank you, thank you, thank you for the Good News that Jesus is risen! Grant us the courage to be Easter Fools, embracing and nurturing LIFE wherever and whenever we have the opportunity, all in your name. Amen.

01 April 2010

Meditation: "Sorrow"

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" --Mark 15:34

"Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.'" --Luke 23:46

"Laments, the most frequent category among the psalms, begin with a cry to God expressing anguish, suffering and abandonment, list reasons for the suffering, plead with God for release and end with petition or praise. Laments give voice to suffering with the plaintive realization that alienation and suffering can be placed before God. The psalmist clings to God at that very moment of God’s absence. The earliest accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death embody the theology of lament, and in [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] the final words of Jesus are from laments." --John R. Donahue, SJ


***

Dear Friends,

Two acquaintances bump into one another on the street. One asks the other, "Hey, how's it going?" and they reply, "Oh, I'm doing fine, thanks."

Except they aren't.

Turns out their heart is heavy with grief over the death of someone dear to them. And this sorrow has only intensified a medical condition that gets worse with stress, leading to constant discomfort. They're worried about their children and don't know if they will have a job next week.

But when asked the question, "Hey, how's it going?" who wants to be the downer, the whiner, the complainer? So the brave face goes up, the sorrow gets swept under the rug, and the silent suffering continues.

A couple of years ago, Newsweek ran an article entitled, "Happiness? Enough already!" The gist of the article was that we live in a society that is obsessed with "happiness." And living in such a society can be pretty hellish for those who are not feeling particularly cheery or superficially happy or who are even--gasp!--experiencing deep depression. We're quick to throw medication at what sometimes is quite an ordinary human emotion--sorrow. Don't get me wrong--I know very well that there are circumstances when the help of modern medicine is entirely appropriate and exceedingly helpful. But, by and large, we don't know what to do with sorrow and so we don't do anything with it--other than try to get rid of it or think there's something wrong with us for feeling it in the first place.

I'm thinking about this today because tomorrow is Good Friday, the day that Christians mark the crucifixion and death of Jesus. And it seems to me that, of any day in the year, sorrow is an entirely appropriate emotion to feel on Good Friday. We see Jesus, unjustly accused, scorned, beaten, and killed--and it should affect us. Rather than suppress it, sorrow is one way we are supposed to feel when we consider the suffering and death of Jesus. Rather than try to explain it or theologize it or understand it--just this one day, let's just feel it. And perhaps shed a tear while we're at it.

A wise woman I knew, responding to someone who apologized for shedding tears while recounting a very sad story, said, "There is no need to apologize for your tears. They are a sign of your humanity."

Indeed. Tears, sorrow, grief--they are signs of our humanity. God help us if they are not our response to the suffering and the pain and the tragedies that are an inevitable part of being human.

If on no other day of the year, on Good Friday let us lament and feel the sorrow of a world that, if we could ask it, "How are you?" would have to honestly reply, "I'm hurting."

Blessings on your week,

Jeremy

Prayer: Compassionate God, sometimes--in the midst of our pain and sorrow--we wonder where you are. Help us to place it all into your care, trusting that you do not forsake us. Amen.

18 March 2010

Meditation: "Holy Disruptions"

"It's a difficult business, being human." --Wendell Berry

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." --Matthew 10:34

"Perhaps we are more attentive when life is hard." --Jean Blomquist


****
Dear Friends,

In a blog posting a few weeks ago, I expressed the desire to live a focused life, a life attuned to the presence of God in and through all things. I concluded that posting by suggesting the possibility of "fasting" from electronics for a day as a way to limit distractions and regain focus on things that matter to me.

Well, as many of you know, I went for it.

During the season of Lent, our family is practicing what we are calling "Digital-Free" or "Technology-Free" Fridays. Friday is my day off each week, and on this day we do not turn on the computer or TV or iPod or DVD player. We turn off the cell phones. We are fasting from all of these digital devices, consciously making an effort to not let them distract us. But here's the key...we're doing it not just as a practice of self-denial, but so that we can focus on what matters more deeply to us--time together as a family, relationships, listening, paying attention.

It's been harder than I ever thought it would be. For goodness sakes, it's just one day a week! But countless times that day, I get a little twitchy, wanting to turn on the computer and check email, Facebook, and the like. In the mornings, I find myself--without thinking--moving to flick on the TV and stick my kids in front of it so I can read the paper in peace. (Coming to an awareness of how impulsively I do that to my children really hits hard.) I look at that cell phone and feel a little flutter of anxiety--who has needed me and can't reach me? I go out for a walk or a bike ride and I feel out of sorts without my iPod in my ears to occupy me. Allison and I often end the day watching something on a Netflix DVD--but not on digital free Fridays. And it throws us off a little.

We humans are such distract-able creatures, so prone to routines and habits. Sometimes it takes a little "holy disruption" to help us clearly identify where we crowd out space and time for God, for family, for ourselves--including our own thoughts and feelings. I think Jesus is this kind of "holy disruption" in the lives of those who encounter him. His way of being and speaking knocks things off-kilter, forcing us to see things from a new angle. For some of us, it's annoying. For others, it's liberating. For the rest of us, it's a little of both!

So, even though it's just one day a week, these "digital free Fridays" have been extremely illuminating. Because it has been harder than I anticipated, I am noticing things I wouldn't have otherwise. God has shown me how distract-able I really am. But God has also helped me glimpse what it's like to be a little less distracted. We've experienced more time paying attention to each other as a family, intentionally, on these Fridays. I've had the blessed discovery (hardly earth shattering) that the world does not fall apart while I am away from my email and the cell phone is turned off. Talk about getting put in your place!

What I feel called to next is to take into the rest of the year what I am experiencing and learning during this Lenten fast. The danger is that I will too easily fall back into past patterns of behavior. So, while we are still in Lent, I'm already thinking what happens after Easter. New life, I hope--a life lived a little more fully, more attentive to God and to those around me.

What about you? What "holy disruption" might help you see your life in a new way?

Blessings on your week,

Jeremy

Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for those "holy disruptions" in our lives which reveal to us new opportunities to love you and reach out to those around us. Amen.

03 March 2010

Meditation: "When Faith Bears a Cost"

"When they heard [all that Jesus had to say], all were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill...so that they might hurl him off the cliff." --Luke 4:28-29 (how the crowd responds to Jesus' first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth)

Jesus said, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." --Luke 14:26-27

"Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." --Dietrich Bonhoeffer
-----
Dear Friends,

Last week was a tough week. It's a long story, so I'll keep to the very short version. Our local ministerial association was largely in agreement that it felt called to help provide transitional housing for men being released from prison into our community. Every year, men are released from jail on parole into our community--but they have no place to go, and so end up homeless on the streets. Seeing this need and truly believing that men trying to get on a better path after being in prison would benefit from housing and support, our ministerial association wanted to help. A rental house became available and the landlord really wanted the house to be used for this kind of purpose. So our ministerial association began to move forward with plans to utilize this house as a transitional home for men being released from prison on parole. Last week we had a community notification meeting to let the surrounding neighborhood know about the plan and to hear their concerns and questions. We knew it would be contentious. What we didn't realize was just how contentious.

It blew up like a 2-liter of shaken soda pop. Only it wasn't funny and lasted 2 hours.

The hostility of many in the crowd was intense and vocal. Questions could not be answered because of shouting and name calling. People did not listen and only heard what they wanted to hear. People leaped to wild assumptions: "If we let this transitional house go in, our children's throats are going to be slashed" (no joke, one person made that connection) or "If we these people move into our neighborhood, then my kids are going to be exposed to drugs." More than one sentence began, "I'm a Christian, BUT..." More than one sentence ended, "...BUT not in my neighborhood." You get the idea. Though several people asked excellent questions (and actually listened to the response) and others raised very valid concerns, by and large, the tenor of the crowd was extremely hostile and fearful.

I left that meeting shaken and greatly disturbed in Spirit. I've had many thoughts swirling around my head and heart since then. And the question that I have had to ask myself over and over again is this: "Would I want seven men just released from prison to live next door to me?" (To be clear, this proposed transitional house was not in my neighborhood.) On the one hand, like others I would want to say, "No way!" And I'd use the same reasoning: the safety of my children, property values, and all the rest.

But on the other hand, as a person who claims to follow Jesus, I need to think about this differently. I can't just say "No!" Jesus made it clear that being his disciple would bear a cost. That it wouldn't be easy. That it would involve sacrifice. The quote from Luke 14 above is a very hard saying by Jesus--maybe the hardest for me right now. What he seems to be saying is that absolutely nothing, not even family or our own safety, ought to get in the way of being faithful to him. It might just be that faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ means that I must be very careful before I stand in the way of this kind of a project. Should I raise concerns? Yes. Should I ask tough questions? Yes. But I cannot oppose a project that is at its heart a compassionate ministry to people on the margins (the kind of folks Jesus had a special affinity for) without any acknowledgment that my Christian faith may require a different response from me--even if it bears a cost, so to speak. In this case, that cost would be a lower property value and a decreased sense of safety for me and my family.

This gets taken to another level, though. Not only do I think that we can't oppose something like this without considering the cost of discipleship, but I think we also need to consider how we can respond in a more Christ-like manner. So, for instance, if the house next door to mine is used as transitional housing for men being released from prison, the question isn't just, "How do I keep these guys from harming me and my family?" but "How can I offer Christian hospitality to these men--no matter what they've done in the past? How can I reach out in ways that will contribute to their success in getting on a better path in life?" That's the harder question that Jesus-followers must consider.

Too often we forget that living as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ may demand something from us that is truly costly and difficult. That's tough for me--and many others--to accept. But at the same time, there's something profoundly satisfying and deeply meaningful about living our lives without compromising our faith commitments--living utterly committed to the way of Jesus Christ. That's what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "costly grace."

During this Lenten season, I pray that God will instill in you the courage to live out your faith commitments to the max.

Blessings,

Jeremy

Prayer: God of Power and Might, grant us courage and wisdom to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, and help us to remember that--in all things--you are our refuge and our rock. Amen.

18 February 2010

Meditation: "Mortality"

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" --traditional words spoken on Ash Wednesday as ashes are traced on the forehead in the sign of the cross

"The best thing of all is, God is with us." --reported to be the final words of John Wesley (founder of the Methodist movement in England)

"When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we're dying, it is in the Lord. Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God." --from the hymn Pues Si Vivimos (When We are Living)
*****
Dear Friends,

Last night, as I smudged ashes on foreheads with the words above ("Remember that you are dust..."), I was struck by two paradoxical feelings--how uncomfortable it felt on the one hand, and how freeing on the other.

For those who don't know, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, a season characterized by repentance and renewed commitment to God. Every year, on Ash Wednesday, Lent begins with the reminder of our mortality--which is an inescapable part of being human. Being reminded of our mortality reminds us of our humanity which, in turn, is a reminder of our utter dependence upon God. Hence, the season of Lent is a time to do some "soul clean-up" with a renewed commitment to trust God, and God alone.

There was a time in my life when I was more at peace with my own mortality. Maybe it was because I was young and foolish--I was in my 20's at the time. But I can't help but wonder if it was because I spent a year working in a hospice for homeless men with full-blown AIDS where death was inescapable. I know it sounds bleak, but in a way being exposed to death--as tragic as it often was--normalized it. What I mean is that I began to understand that death is as much a part of life as being born. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later. Because in so many ways we shield ourselves from death, no wonder so many feel great fear and anxiety when they are in the presence of dying and death. Though I never got completely used to it, working in an environment where death was not a stranger eased some of my fear of it.

But that was then. Now, in my late 30's and with two small children, I am not so cavalier about death. I look at my children and worry over what their lives will be like if something happens to me. I have a deep sense of responsibility for their well being. I look at my children and wonder what my life will be like if something happens to them. Though it seemed cute at the time, it gave me pause when my own girls--5 and 1 1/2--asked me to trace the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I couldn't even bring myself to say the words. I don't want to think about their mortality--they are just children, after all.

But that's what Ash Wednesday forces me to do--to acknowledge my own mortality, and the mortality of all those I know and love. That's the uncomfortable feeling I felt last night. In a death-denying culture, it's no wonder I would feel that discomfort. At the same time, however, there is a sense of freedom in acknowledging my mortality. It is freeing because it is an affirmation that I am not God, and don't need to be. There is a sense of honesty in acknowledging my mortality which allows me to let go of my illusions of power and control and perfection. I am a finite creature, plain and simple, a creature of God. As I looked around that circle of human beings with their mortality smudged on their foreheads, I thought, "Well look at us, O God, your creatures. Not one of us is perfect. But in our living and in our dying, we belong to you."

The spiritual move Ash Wednesday challenges me to make is this--to entrust the whole of my life to God. Not to run away from death. Not to pretend like it does not exist. But to acknowledge it and at the very same time to say,

"In you alone, O God, I place my trust."

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

Prayer: Compassionate God, Help me to live not in the shadow of death, but in the strong light of your merciful grace. Amen.

09 February 2010

Meditation: "Paying Attention"

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11b-13)

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. (Exodus 24:15-17)

Theophany (noun): An appearance of God to a human or to a group of people, as with the burning bush to Moses (Exod 3:4) or the pillar of cloud or fire leading the people (Num 14:14).

****

Dear Friends,

Are you driven to distraction?

On Frontline last week there was a report about the changes happening in society because of the digital revolution. Even in my lifetime, I've seen a huge shift with the rise of personal computers and the emergence of an incredible array of digital gadgets. This particular program was about the ever shrinking attention span of young adults as they, more than any generation before them, have learned to multi-task with an iPod in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and a laptop open before them. As it turns out, fewer and fewer people have the power of concentration and an ability to deeply focus on one task or thought for any length of time.

I include myself in this. More than I care to admit I will try to do at least two things at once--say, talk on the phone and read email. At home, it's often three or more things at once as I add children into the mix! But there have been times, very deliberate moments, when I have realized that I am driving myself to distraction. There are times when I am acutely aware that I need to intentionally set all of it aside and just focus and pay attention. To what? At the least, anything other than the beeping phone, the flashing email, and the ten other things I was just doing at once!

This matters to me because I don't want to live a distracted life. I want to live a focused life, a life that is attuned to the presence of God in and through all things. I believe that God does indeed reveal Godself to us. But in my experience, full-blown theophanies (see definition above) are extremely rare. In my experience, God does not thunder and shake the earth and burst things into fire as is so vividly described in the Hebrew scriptures (and not meant to be taken literally). Rather, God tends to reveal Godself quietly and subtly. If we aren't able to pay attention, to really concentrate or focus, then how will we hear the still, small voice of God? (This, of course, is what contemplative Christians and practitioners of meditation have understood for ages.) If we are so distracted by the incredible volume of information instantaneously available to us on our computer, by the sensory overload of mp3s and the internet and HDTV, how capable will we be of perceiving the less spectacular, quieter manifestations of God?

I'm pondering how I can take this further in my own life. Maybe, instead of fasting or giving up chocolate or coffee during Lent, I'll "fast" from all electronics for a day. And not just fast, but pay attention--to God, to my life, to the Spirit of God moving in the world around me.

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

Prayer: God of the sound of sheer silence, each day grant me the will to set aside the distractions and focus my heart and mind on you--even for just a few minutes. Amen.

04 February 2010

Meditation: "Confidence Boost"

God said, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”   --Jeremiah 1:4-10

We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, talented or fabulous?” Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. --Marianne Williamson
-----

Dear Friends,

Last Sunday in worship, we heard read the words above from Jeremiah. They are among the most personally meaningful verses to me in the whole of the Bible. Perhaps like me you've found yourself in a situation in which you feel completely and utterly inadequate. You just don't know how to do what you are being asked to do. Or you don't think you can do it. Sometimes we find ourselves in these positions because we sign-up for something and then discover we are in way over our head. Other times, we find ourselves thrust into a position (perhaps by God) when we're being asked to do something or to speak or to act--and we are at a loss about how to proceed.

This is a bit how I felt when I became a parent. Despite all the preparation--parenting classes, books, the works--when the day finally arrived and I actually was a parent, I found myself in new and unfamiliar territory (and, as my kids grow older, I still frequently do!). It took more than head knowledge for me to fulfill this new role of parent. It took heart knowledge and intuition and trust that the God who called me to parenthood would provide a way for me to live that calling out.

This may come as a surprise to some of you who join me in worship most weeks, but I have never really viewed myself as a "preacher." Getting up in front of people and speaking was way outside my comfort zone. I would get terribly nervous--dry mouth and trembling hands. Now, over time I've gotten a handle on it--mostly. But it was a bit rocky at the outset.

Which is why these words from Jeremiah are so meaningful to me. They are a reminder that when I stand up to speak (whatever the situation) and I am speaking from my most authentic self, God will provide--words, if necessary, as well as the confidence I need. The Bible in my office is always open to the first chapter of Jeremiah so that, when I walk into our sanctuary to lead worship and preach, I can read these empowering and confidence boosting words from God.

When you find yourself in a situation when you are called upon by God to do something new or different or outside of your comfort zone, remember Jeremiah. Recall God's promise "to be with you to deliver you."

Blessings on your week,

Jeremy

Prayer: Gracious God, when I doubt my abilities and gifts, remind me of your empowering Spirit that will guide and direct me. Amen.

27 January 2010

Meditation: "Beneath the Surface"

what is it, really, that's keeping me
from living a life that's true?
When the worries speak louder than wisdom,
it drowns out all the answers I knew,
so I'm tossed on the waves on the surface.
Still, the mystery's dark and deep,
with a much more frightening stillness...
underneath.
--from David Wilcox's song "Underneath" on the album of the same name

"I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it." --Harry Emerson Fosdick

"Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It's way over our heads." (Romans 11:33 in "The Message" by Eugene Peterson)
*****
Dear Friends,

Have you ever had the feeling that you were just skimming across the surface of your life? I'm embarrassed to admit that very often that's where I seem to be living. It's not hard to explain why--family life, work, chores, meetings, etc.--and before I know it, another month has slipped away. But then something will happen and, like a curtain being drawn aside to let in the light, I will be reminded that there is a whole dimension to my life that doesn't go away just because I'm skimming across the surface and oblivious to it.

Oddly enough, that happened for me last week while I was attending five days of church meetings near Portland. The days were long, full of discussion and decisions to be made. But each morning I arose early enough to have a few moments of quiet to myself. And during that time I got in touch with the deeper dimension of my life--beneath the surface of it all. In that place, I began to ponder the significance of what's been going on in my life, how I've seen or felt God's Spirit stirring, where I've experienced joy or frustration and pondering why that's so. Sometimes I'm startled to be reminded of how much is stirring beneath the surface of my life, much of which will remain a mystery even to me. But on those occasions when I actually stop and reflect, I am heartened to be reminded that the significance of my life is much deeper than I often experience on a day-to-day basis. (For those parents out there, let me put it concretely: there's more meaning to life than diapers, play dates, and sippy cups.)

How about you? Are you like me, skimming across the surface of your life? What would help you stop, even if for a few moments, and appreciate the deeper dimension of your life? It's like an iceberg--most of the ice lies beneath the surface of the water. We get glimpses of God in our daily lives, but to really encounter the immensity of God in our lives, we must look beneath the surface and go deeper.

May you go deep and encounter God.

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

Prayer: God of the Depths, grant us the grace and courage to direct our eyes and our hearts to seek your wisdom beneath the surface of our lives. Amen.

07 January 2010

Meditation: "Names for God"

"And again Jesus said, 'To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.'" Luke 13:20-21

"God, like a bakerwoman, you bring the leaven which causes our hopes to rise. With your strong and gentle hands, shape our lives..." (excerpted from a prayer written by Ruth Duck)

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places." (John 14:2)

*****
Dear Friends,

I've heard many prayers in my life. But recently it seems that many of the prayers I've heard start like this, "Father God, we just..." And these prayers, as meaningful and heartfelt as they are, are peppered throughout with, "Father God, we just..."

I suppose this recent experience was why, last Sunday when I introduced a song we were about to sing, I told the congregation that, sometimes, I sing the words "God's glory" instead of "the Father's glory". In other words, I desired a more inclusive, less gender specific name for God.

Now, I know I sound a bit picky, but for me it really matters how we name God. Because in naming God, we image God, and for me, the image of Father, as wonderful as it can be, when it is used exclusively, becomes tired, narrow, and limiting. There are so many rich images for God throughout the Bible that exclusively calling God "Father" is like going into a candy store and choosing to eat peanut brittle over and over again instead of delighting in the variety available--fudge and toffee and dark chocolate and pralines and...well, you get the idea. And I'm getting hungry.

I can't remember who wrote this, but they point out that, in the Bible, "God is likened to various parts of nature such as a whirlwind, a cloud, and a pillar of fire and to such animals as a hen, an eagle, and a lion. God is pictured as a tower, a shield, and a garment. God is described as a creator, potter, shepherd, father, birthing mother, and bridegroom. God is assigned human qualities such as intelligence, will, memory, anger, and forgiveness. God is spoken of as possessing human form, with eyes, arms, and hands, as walking around, and speaking with a voice."

All these evocative images for God, and instead of calling upon them when addressing God in prayer (like Ruth Duck's "Bakerwoman God" above) so many simply repeat, "Father God, we just..."

How about, "Fiery God of Justice" or "Tender God, like a mother hen" or "Majestic God, like and eagle" or "Refining God, who purifies with love" or "Gracious God with open, merciful arms" or... You get the idea. So many images for God, and too often all we hear is "Father God, we just..."

Yes, I know, I know. Jesus referred to God as "Abba" which literally means "Daddy." Yes, I know, God is referred to as Father throughout the Bible. Yes, I know that masculine images of God take front and center.

But still, we know that God is beyond gender and, ultimately, cannot be limited to any human reference. And so I say, let us use our God-given creativity to name God in delightful, surprising ways mindful that they are just a few of the multitude of names that we might use to address our God.

I pray that you will find a name for God that allows you to meaningfully connect with God in prayer. If it's "Father," that's great. If it's "Mother," I promise that you won't be struck down for it. If it's "shepherd," that's wonderfully Biblical.

I even knew a woman who called God "Bill." Hey, it may not be a Biblical name, but she and "Bill" sure had a close relationship!

And that's what matters most of all.

Blessings on your week,

Jeremy