The Fourth Sunday After Easter: Sheepishly Dependent

This week was a whirldwind of violence, accusations, accidents, fear and loss. In the midst of the confusion, I knew I needed to turn of the news, step away from my computer and do some healing work in my garden. As I trimmed, weeded and transplanted, I was serenaded by the wrens who are checking out the new bird house, and the keening of red shouldered hawk, lusting after the baby chicks next door. (Said baby chicks are against our Home-owners Association covenant, by the way… and will be relocated.)

But in the yard, as I began to tend the plants and count the budding flowers, there was a sense of peace. Yes, a strong storm could indeed topple a tree right on top of the new roses. The predicted cicadas could chomp our lilac buds right off. I could forget and leave the gate open and find deer munching on my tomatoes, or trimming off the tops of the hydrangeas and hostas. But as possible as those gardening frustrations could be, I would still be OK. My family and friends could still be safe and healthy.

As I worked and reflected on life in general, I thought about how far removed we are, as a society, from the agrarian lifestyle of the Bible. Farming, tending sheep, sowing seed — they just aren’t part of our normal routines. So taking a step back from commuting and thinking about composting has its spiritual benefits!

For this week’s readings, in particular, we need this land-based mindset. The readings from the Lectionary point us to our dependent and needy relationship with God. The Psalm reminds us to trust that The Shepherd will be with us in “the valley of the shadow of death” and that we will be well-fed.

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.

You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house
as long as I live.

Sheep are silly things. They run away from danger without looking, without a clear plan of escape. Their lives can be expressed in a panicked flight from one fear to another. They will eat things which not only make them sick, it could kill them (think broken glass!) They balk from accepting things that are good from them. And when they ARE being cared for, particularly when they must be separated from the herd, they bleat their distress. Loudly. And often.

But sheep also have some instinctual behavior which helps protect them. They want to be in flocks. They keep their young on the inside of the flock’s perimeter whenever possible. They accept the protection of other animals (including other herding animals) and seem to keep a truce with their herding dogs. And they understand, even though they are raised in a domesticated setting, that the world is a dangerous place. And if they stick together and watch out for each other, life is a little sweeter.

By design, sheep are kept in a protected environment so that they can spend their days grazing, drinking, and resting. And growing wool. By preference, or perhaps centuries of domestication, they forget that their every need is met. They will test the boundaries, the fence-lines, and the herder. When I first learned this from a shepherd, I asked, “Wait! Sheep have sin natures, too?”

We had a good laugh.

Ah, I am so much like sheep. Eating, sleeping, reacting, engaging in ways that are not the best for me. Aren’t we all?

In a week of distress, real or implied, where our assumed safety is threatened and our previously “safe pastures” are invaded, it’s easy to react in a panic. To forget that there is a Good Shepherd who hears, who sees, who cares. To remember that there are real evils in this world and that the spiritual enemies we face invade hearts and lives and actions every day.

We can’t live in fear. Or panic. Or anger. Nor can we forget that the stronghold of evil in this world will come and do battle in our comfortable lives, whenever and wherever it chooses. We have to accept that this life is occasionally difficult, frustrating, and even full of evil. The difference is that as we band together, and watch over one another, we know Who eventually wins this battle. Consider these words from Ephesians 6:

11 Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. 12 We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. 13 Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. 14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace.16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.

18 Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers.

As members of One Flock, as comrades in times of pleasant pastures or dangerous valleys, the Church can’t become split or disintegrated when we are under stress. It is easier to scatter than to band together, to run in our own inclinations instead of moving across obstacles together. Being One Church means that we have to fight our instincts for self-preservation and  sheepishly depend on God.

Shepherds know this. And sometimes, pigs do too.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says in John 10. “I know them and they follow me.”

The problem is, we listen to our own voices, or only each other in times of stress. We set up our own “passwords” and put contingencies on whether or not we think God really cares about us.

Two weeks ago, the Scriptures focused on the doubts and fears we all face. Last week, we heard Christ’s instructive words to Peter to tend the lambs and feed the sheep. It’s a journey we take together, with our questions, our anger, our cries for justice and for peace.

The words of Psalm 23 are so familiar that we can gloss over them. Yet they invite us to stop and lean in…

Listen. Stop and breathe in the rhythms and heart of Grace. The Shepherd’s voice speaks over the chaos, and cuts through our complacency. You will hear the tender voice of the Shepherd. Calling you. Inviting you. Reminding you that though is a valley of death, there is also goodness and mercy and a place of Eternal Safety.

Thanks be to God!

———- 0O0 ———-

In closing, listen to this arrangement of Psalm 23, created by Bobby McFerrin. The Trinity is offered in a feminine voice, and the rich chords bring a sense of safety, wholeness and love. I invite you to turn up the sound, close your eyes, and feel The Shepherd’s warmth and care — for you.

Shalom.

Second Sunday in Lent – Year C

Philippians 3:17-4:1

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

These verses make me shudder.

Shudder because these are verses ripped from the context of the passage, and are used far too often as an excuse to be rude. Or unkind. Or sanctimoniously superior. The verses become words of self-satisfaction when there’s a bloated estimation of their personal holiness.

You know…

“people live as enemies of the cross…”
“their god is their stomach…”
“their thoughts focus on earthly things…”

Usually, these verses are taken and used to club people over the head who happen to look/dress/smell/love/pray/eat/drink differently that you or I do. It’s usually said with faux sorrow at their sinfulness. And yet, the person preaching has not looked in the mirror, or gazed into his/her own soul lately. It so much easier to point out the sins of others if you don’t take stock of your own…

It’s much easier to criticize than change yourself. At least, that’s what I’m thinking…

And then I read this…

Luke 13:31-35

31 At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”32 Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. 33 However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 35 Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”

Here’s the scary part for me as I read these verses… The very people who are supposed to be caring for God’s people, teaching them and helping them grow in their love and knowledge for God — those are the people who have robbed the chicken coop and left it empty, all the while screeching that the fox is coming.

And THEY are the fox. Or should I say  WE are…

We run from the welcoming embrace of God. We drive others away from God’s love and protection. We built huge fences of doctrine and fortresses of big theological words.

And God will have none of it.

What are we to do? Perhaps Paul’s words are a good reminder: “become imitators of me” (Phil 3:17) and live like my “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). To me, that takes a lot of the things that I think are OK to do and tosses them out the window. I just don’t think God will welcome citizens into heaven who have rude, self-righteous, angry words to say about their brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of where they worship on a Sunday morning.

Church, it’s time to get over yourself. The building is empty and the chicks are waiting, still sheltered by God, for you to come home to your roost, open the doors of the coop, and let them in…

Oh. In case you wondered, that includes me too.

Thanks be to God.

“The Balancing Act” – First Sunday in Lent, Year C

On my wall there is a Nantucket Weather Glass. It is a kind of barometer, physically showing the rise and fall of the air pressure in the atmosphere. As the barometric pressure rises, the invisible forces “push” the water down the spout back into the glass. As the barometric pressure falls, the water moves back up the spout. It’s a visible sign of the invisible forces around us. Ever since I was very young, I’ve been fascinated by watching the movement of the water, up and down, in the glass.

Sometimes, I wish there were a more visible “sign” of God at work in my life. I get frustrated as I try to understand the “whys” of my situation. I grumble, “Why am I going through this AGAIN??”

I have learned not to let the external forces sway me, though, from where God calls me to live and work. These external forces or circumstances change constantly. My guiding Star is Christ, who in my heart of hearts affirms and encourages me. I have no doubts about God’s care for me, even when I am in the middle of a huge challenge.

In this week’s Scriptures, we are learning more about how walk the fine line between having faith and using reason. Psalm 91 in particular gives us that comforting sense that we are headed in and around with the care and protection of God. And so we are!

From Psalm 91:

The Lord Most High is your fortress.
Run to him for safety,
10 and no terrible disasters will strike you or your home.
11 God will command his angels
to protect you wherever you go.
12 They will carry you in their arms,
and you won’t hurt your feet on the stones.
13 You will overpower the strongest lions
and the most deadly snakes.
14 The Lord says,
“If you love me and truly know who I am,
I will rescue you and keep you safe.
15 When you are in trouble, call out to me.
I will answer and be there to protect and honor you.
16 You will live a long life
and see my saving power.

These verses make me feel covered, protected and cherished. The temptation I face is to then feel that I am invincible, able to withstand anything. That I will never suffer misfortune, or pain, or sorrow, or bankruptcy, or illness. And that is not the world I live in…

So what do I do with verses that say, “no one who has faith will be disappointed” (Romans 10:11b) or that God is “generous to everyone who asks for his help” (Rom. 10:12b). What do I think then I read promises of a long life or of being kept safe, and then I experience the ravages of cancer, divorce, homicide or a weather disaster? What if my crops wither? What if I don’t overpower that lion?

The answer is found in the first passage for this Sunday, in Deuteronomy 26:

1 “The Lord is giving you the land, and soon you will conquer it, settle down, and plant crops. And when you begin harvesting each of your crops, the very first things you pick must be put in a basket. Take them to the place where the Lord your God chooses to be worshiped, and tell the priest, “Long ago the Lord our God promised our ancestors that he would give us this land. And today, I thank him for keeping his promise and giving me a share of the land.”

After a generation of wilderness wandering, the people of God are finally brought to their Land. The Land they endured hardship, death and delay to enter. The Land of Promise. The Land which had rightly been theirs, until they had to flee because of famine. The Land they longed for as they were enslaved in Egypt.

Moses led the people, imperfect a leader as there ever was, to its borders. And looking back, together they traced the path of God’s direction and Providence. It’s easy to see as you look back in time. It must have been hard to look ahead and see the challenges of “taking back” their Land. And as God’s people moved forward, they were challenged to give the first fruits of the Land back to God as an offering of worship.

So I am back to this “balancing act” I first spoke of, one of faith and reason, cohabiting. A balancing act that each of us must learn to navigate.

FAITH that we know we have arrived at this point in time with God in control.
FAITH that the Promises God has made to us are true, and will be fulfilled completely.
FAITH that our ultimate “destination” is not a physical Land, but a place we will share with God forever.

REASON to see and respond to our circumstances, rather than going off blindly without consideration or strategy.
REASON to accept our limitations and plan strategically to get around them.
REASON to know the difference between faith and foolishness.

The balance is hard to keep. We hold in tension the reality of life in a broken world with God’s promises of companionship and protection. We fight against the realities that dampen our hopes, that make our faith falter. We wrestle with allowing God full control. We try to clear our own path, instead of waiting and praying. We’re too proud to ask for help, but neither are we to cower and whine and do nothing.

Yes. I struggle with this balance. I vacillate between acting with gross overconfidence or groveling in complete frustration and defeat. As the years go by, I get a little better at this balancing act. I can “read the signs” a little more quickly that a storm is brewing, or that I am in a short period of clear skies. The battle is constant, but God’s promise of companionship and care is as well.

“When you are in trouble, call out to Me.” (Psalm 91:15a)

Yes. And Yes.

Thanks be to God.

When You Missed Your Cue… A Transfiguration Moment

Luke 9:28-36 (Contemporary English Version)

About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. While he was praying, his face changed, and his clothes became shining white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah were there speaking with him. They appeared in heavenly glory and talked about all that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem would mean.

Peter and the other two disciples had been sound asleep. All at once they woke up and saw how glorious Jesus was. They also saw the two men who were with him.

Moses and Elijah were about to leave, when Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Peter did not know what he was talking about.

While Peter was still speaking, a shadow from a cloud passed over them, and they were frightened as the cloud covered them. 35 From the cloud a voice spoke, “This is my chosen Son. Listen to what he says!”

After the voice had spoken, Peter, John, and James saw only Jesus. For some time they kept quiet and did not say anything about what they had seen.

Did you see it? This inner circle, this trusted group of disciples missed an opportunity. When Jesus invited them to come and pray up on the mountain, they fell asleep.

THEY FELL ASLEEP!!! (Pardon me while I laugh at myself.)

It would not be the only time they would fall asleep when Jesus asked them to pray with him. But think about what they missed…
By sleeping, they didn’t see the change in Jesus from his everyday earthly appearance to a transfigured one.
By sleeping, they missed out on the conversation — one that centered around the meaning of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem. They didn’t grasp the significance of Moses and Elijah being with Jesus.
In waking, they were disoriented. They had an incomplete understanding of what just went down. Then Peter, bless him, tried to pull the same stunt I would – he tried to cover the fact that he had been asleep. (Quick! Think of something!) And Luke records that Peter “did not know what he was talking about.”

How often do I miss the message? How often do I try and cover for my lack of diligence or ignorance? And why do I think that I have to reduce spirituality to a competition, a sort of “spiritual contact sport” where there are winners and losers, and no one wants to be a loser?

When my kids were very young, I found it hard to pray. Heck, I found it hard to do anything that required stringing two or three linear thoughts together. I managed to keep everyone fed and clothed, but in the early days of “baby haze” I found myself nodding off, time and time again, when I sat down to pray and read my Bible.

It was embarrassing. It seemed that every Christian woman I met had amazing “quiet times” and shared their insightful revelations during Bible study. I felt it to be an accomplishment to be dressed with matching socks. So I pretended. And the great cover-up began. The guilt was high, you see. It was a conspiracy, I thought. How could it be otherwise? There were sermon illustrations, vignettes, and story after story of amazing women of God, who got up before the chickens and prayed and had their quiet times before the rest of the household. And then they raised godly children who set the Church ablaze, becoming missionaries, planting megachurches, and so on. I just had to get up early and pray! What godly mom didn’t want to do that?

So I would try again. Set my alarm. Creep downstairs to a chair, wrap up in a blanket… and fall asleep with a Bible in my lap. After a few days of this routine, I would shrug, reset my alarm for a saner time, and sleep. I learned to talk to God and pray as I worked, played, cleaned and cooked. I carved out little moments here and there. But I felt guilty. So I performed my spiritual cover-up like it was some great performance art.

It took several years (I’m a slow learner) to figure out that I am not a morning person. The time of day that I read my Bible really did not matter. The time WITH GOD did.
Being alert to God’s word.
Being tender to hear God’s heart.
Being aware of God’s work around me.
Being ready to care for the needs and hurts of those I met.

Like Peter, I miss the mark all the time. I want to make a “holy place” or find some kind of “marker” to show that I get the significance of my time with God — but that is not the point. I don’t think God wants any more “places” built. I do think God wants me to take the transforming power of God and DO something with it.

The lesson of the Transfiguration is one of awareness, being prepared for what God might do next. There’s a sense of “God in the wings,” with the Spirit sending cues to my ClearCom. There’s foreshadowing — do I see it? Do I get it?

It really didn’t matter WHEN I stopped to listen. I just needed to do it with my full heart and mind engaged.

It’s not easy. Some days, in fact, it is impossible. I’ll miss out on many other Transfiguring moments in my life, I’m sure. But instead of trying to cover up, I’ll try to regroup, listen harder, and seek to hear what God has in mind.

And then go do something with what I hear.

Countdown to the Launchpad (Year C: The Presentation of Christ)

7 Mighty gates: lift up your heads!
Ancient doors: rise up high!
So the glorious king can enter!
8 Who is this glorious king?
The Lord—strong and powerful!
The Lord—powerful in battle!
9 Mighty gates: lift up your heads!
Ancient doors: rise up high!
So the glorious king can enter!
10 Who is this glorious king?
The Lord of heavenly forces—
he is the glorious king!

Psalm 24:7-10, CEB (Common English Bible)

A young couple walks from their hometown to the Temple. They bring their son and offer the only sacrifice they could afford, two small pigeons. In obedience to their God, they dedicate him, name him, and prepare to leave. And then, the anonymous couple is suddenly surprised by an outpouring of devotion and praise.

Simeon and Anna, devout, patient, faithful followers of God, have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Perhaps they were reminded of the Psalm of David that proclaimed the entrance of the King of kings. Perhaps there was a tremor in the bedrock, and they felt it, deep in their souls.

WHO IS THIS GLORIOUS KING?

Their hearts responded in praise to God. In joy. In celebration.

Only Simeon’s words are reported in Luke’s gospel:

29 “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
30 because my eyes have seen your salvation.
31 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
32 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and a glory for your people Israel.”

33 His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. 34 Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

But Anna’s actions were recorded, even though her words were not:

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37 She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

A celebration. A blessing. A promise of heartache. Not exactly what every new parents wants to hear when they bring their baby to be dedicated. You want congratulations. Maybe a few meals delivered to your home or help with household tasks. But to be told that because of your child, you will experience heartache?

Can I get a “NO, THANKS!”

As a parent, there have been some wonderful days, and some very discouraging ones. Not because of our progeny doing “something”, mind you, but because of my own human error and pride getting in the way. As our daughters approach independence, there is a sense of a backwards glance or two. And there is also a desire to see them fly into the world and take it by storm, with their bright potential and dreams.

In every baby baptism or dedication, there is a sense of this promise – that God has already guided, already led the parents together. And that God will bring each child to their place in this world. It is idealistic to the extreme. It is the face and source of Hope as we gather families and babies and proclaim the words of Promise:

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism

and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

Beyond our wildest dreams, God takes the future and releases it through the lives of the Children of the Church. Their questions. Their stories. Their gifts. Their passions. We hold them as babies, cherish them as toddlers, teach them as children, and gradually release them into adulthood. Always knowing that the God of all, the One to whom they were dedicated, baptized and confirmed, will always be with them.

This year, The Johnnie graduates from college. Reedy Girl graduates from high school (college yet TBD.) Life’s pretty full, exciting, and full of forms like FAFSAs, CSS and SATs. Schedules, questions, interviews, jobs, so many plans… so many dreams. Life may not turn out to be with the dreams we dreamed. It may not be according to their best-laid plans, either. But it will be in accordance with the power of Christ, living, breathing, working through them.

Thus the Kingdom of God advances.

When We All Suffer: Lessons learned from commuting on the DC Metro

For the second Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

The rudeness of the people shoving their way around each other, fighting for entry into a Metro car always surprises me. There will another train in 3 minutes during rush hour. Just chill, people! But no…

On one occasion, I stepped back to allow someone to exit. The person right behind me, jabbering away on his cell phone, sensed a gap in the Force and surged around me, not realizing that a person in a wheelchair is trying to get off the train. He stopped abruptly and they did a little shuffle. Left. Right. Left. The man was trapped in the flow, the last person trying to get off as we all waited to get on.

I finally spoke up. “WAIT A MINUTE! Let him off!”

The guy snarled obscenities to me, deliberately kicked the other guy’s wheelchair so that it turned sideways, half on the car and half on the platform, and vaulted over him onto the train. Two of us managed to help him pull free just as the doors closed. Everyone behind me groaned.

“Sir, are you OK?” He looked up, angry.

“I’m fine. Thank you!” He snapped. He wheeled away, yelling for people to move out of his way. I stepped back from the edge of the platform slightly, still guarding my place where the doors would open for the next train.

I looked around at my fellow commuters. Not one would meet my eyes. Everyone was suddenly very busy, scanning their smart phones. Did they not care? Or were they just embarrassed?

The next train came, and since I had not moved, I was in a perfect position to get on the train and find a spot to stand. Shaking my head, I settled into a secure standing position near the front of the car and braced myself for the commute home. Maybe I’d find a seat soon. I slipped automatically into my “Metro zone,” finding my earbuds and being watchful of my setting without staring at anyone. It’s a necessary skill for commuting.

“You know, I think you did the right thing, watching out for that guy,” said the man next to me. I looked up, pausing to stick in my earbuds. The man was about my age and dressed in a well-tailored charcoal grey suit. “People become animals when they think no one knows them.”

We had a short conversation about the inhumanity of the Metro system, and then both of us retreated into our personal electronic devices.

What would it take to change someone’s manners on the Metro? Perhaps having to BE in a wheelchair himself? As I mused, I thought about how often we deliberately ignore or minimize the pain of others.

Sometimes it’s quite deliberate. If I take the time to acknowledge your pain, then I might need to help you. Or listen to you. Or do something about it. And if I don’t I feel guilty.

Other times, it’s because I’m oblivious. I’m wrapped up in my own questions and pondering, and I can literally step right over yours. (Though in the case of the wheelchair-bound Metro commuter, I don’t know what would have made him more noticeable to everyone, besides a klaxon…)

It seems to be our selfish human nature that we respond with a self-centered OUTTA MY WAY! when faced with the obstacles of caring for and dealing with others. Being responsive to others can slow you down. Mess up your “A Game.” Or, in the case of my pushy Metro friend, make you miss a train.

But in these words of Paul, we are shown how when one of us suffers, we all suffer…

I Corinthians 12:12-31

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink.

14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. 23 The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. 24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.

27 You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. 28 In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. 29 All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? 30 All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they? 31 Use your ambition to try to get the greater gifts. And I’m going to show you an even better way.

The theme of humanity’s interconnectedness appears in other places in Scripture (Romans 12:5 and Ephesians 4:25, for starters). It is woven into Christ’s parables and sermons. It is such an important theme that it was among the first Messianic scriptures read by Christ in the synagogue:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As someone who names Christ as my Redeemer, I am called to consider how I will help the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed. While vocationally I am frequently caring for the sick, where is my compassion when I am out of my chaplain’s garb? Where does the “every-day Deb” see the needy around her? When do I notice and when do I turn my head away? While not every need is mine to cover, I know in my heart when I’ve disengaged because it was not convenient. Or comfortable. Or clean. Or (let’s face it) when no one else would notice if I didn’t help.

Perhaps I also don’t want to get involved because I don’t like the person I see. They do not live as I live, or pray as I pray, or agree with my doctrine/political party/sports team. I might make a petty decision to ignore them just because they are not “like me” enough.

When I DO decide to get involved, it’s not about the guilt. It’s about the grace. The gift of God to us. That’s what motivates, empowers and frees me from my agenda to search out God’s agenda for my day. It’s knowing that I have somehow, despite my own struggles, insecurities and plans, found a way to make the love of God shine like a light in the darkness. Feebly. Painfully. In spite of me. In spite of all of us.

That’s God at work.

‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
Jesus. (Matthew 25)

Son of God
Shaper of the stars
You alone
The dweller of my heart
Mighty King
How beautiful You are, how beautiful

Son of God
The Father’s gift to us
You alone
Were broken on the alter of love
Precious Lamb
Our freedom’s in Your blood, It’s in your blood

Jesus, Oh Holy One
I sing to You
Forgiven
Savior, I’m overcome
With Your great love for me

Son of God
Strenght beyond compare
You alone
The darkness cannot bear
Lord of love
Your kindness draws me near, it draws me

Son of God
Prophecy of old
You alone
Redeemer of my soul
Come again
And lead your people home, come lead us home

You are worthy
You are worthy
You are worthy of all my praise

You are beautiful
You are beautiful
I will lift up my hands and singSon of God
Shaper of the stars
You alone
The dweller of my heart
Mighty King
How beautiful You are, how beautiful

Son of God
The Father’s gift to us
You alone
Were broken on the alter of love
Precious Lamb
Our freedom’s in Your blood, It’s in your blood

Jesus, Oh Holy One
I sing to You
Forgiven
Savior, I’m overcome
With Your great love for me

Son of God
Strenght beyond compare
You alone
The darkness cannot bear
Lord of love
Your kindness draws me near, it draws me

Son of God
Prophecy of old
You alone
Redeemer of my soul
Come again
And lead your people home, come lead us home

You are worthy
You are worthy
You are worthy of all my praise

You are beautiful
You are beautiful
I will lift up my hands and sing.

Passing through Deep Waters: Isaiah 43:1-3a

There was a book from my childhood that I remember having read to me, and later reading it on my own. Maybe you have heard of it.

paddletothesea

Paddle-to-the-Sea is the story of a small wooden model of a Native American in a canoe. A boy in Lake Nipigon, Canada takes the toy to the lake’s edge and puts it in the water. On the bottom of the canoe, he has carved the words “Put me back in the water, I am Paddle-to-the-sea.” The story chronicles the toy’s travels through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.

I had ridden in and tried to paddle a real canoe. I remember imagining what it was like to be tossed and carried by the currents and large ships’ wakes. It both intrigued and terrified me. The toy canoe had no rudder, no active paddler. It had no control. It survived countless challenges. And yet – the forces of nature and the kindness of many strangers helped the little canoe to its planned destination.

Somehow, the book, with its art and many accompanying vignettes, was a comforting adventure and I read again and again. The power of the water and waves were not impossible to overcome. There were difficult situations, but the little canoe was OK. I wondered if I could re-create something like it, perhaps with a message in a bottle.

The journey into the unknown is one that we can take with confidence that we do not go without God’s care and blessing. Kind of like the maritime blessing of “Fair winds and following seas,” we generally hope that whatever we face in this life will not be with too much stress or worry. But that’s not the reality of life as most of us know it. Cancer, unexpected death, job losses, natural disaster, shattered relationships — all these life event tear at our carefully constructed pipe dreams of a secure and gentle life.

As Christians, we sometimes fall into this trap of believing that “everything will be OK if we just have faith.” Nice idea. But no. We say this to try and comfort one another. It rarely works. Saying the platitudes might make us feel better – for a moment – but then the heartache rebounds and the questions remain. I have heard many times these well-intentioned but theologically incorrect platitudes about facing adversity: “Well, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle!” Or “Heaven must have needed another angel.” Or among my least favorites, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” (Um… let’s not blame our human error, stubbornness or sin on God, OK?)

So how does one balance this idea of God’s protection and care with a gentle realism that, on occasion, life sucks? It’s not easy.

Perhaps these verses, part of this week’s Lectionary readings, offer a perspective on how to weather the storm…

From Isaiah 43:

1 But now, says the Lord—
the one who created you, Jacob,
the one who formed you, Israel:
Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
3 I am the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, your savior.

God spoke to those under persecution and occupation – I AM HERE. The flood waters and fires would not consume or overwhelm. Though situations seemed dire, God was there. God, their redeemer, creator, and savior. The Holy One of Israel. The Lord.

Do not fear the waters.DSC_0839

Waters that move and surge, molding the shoreline and moving the topsoil. Waters that create boundaries between countries. Waters that host fish for our table. Waters that constantly seek to move to the ocean. Waters that soak and nourish the vegetation.

And waters that come to represent the fresh start, the new life — the waters of baptism.

To me it is no coincidence that these verses from Isaiah are included in the Lectionary’s focus on baptism. John the Baptist met Christ in the Jordan River. We follow Christ’s example of baptism to lay our belief and trust in the trustworthiness of God and to remember the abiding Presence of the Spirit. Sealed by the Spirit, marked as God’s own.

“Remember your baptism” say my pastor friends to their congregations. Some of us were baptized as infants or toddlers. What can we possibly remember? If nothing else, the assurance from family and friends that we were loved, cherished and invited into the larger Family of God. For those of us baptized as adults, there is the memory of being wet. If we were immersed in a baptistry or pool, we remember being VERY wet.

The promise we celebrate in baptism is that of God’s Presence with us — even in those times of floodwaters. Life will have many times of rough waters, but God will be present with us as we struggle through them.

 
DSC_0297
 

Keep paddling-to-the-sea, to the Shore. God invites us to ride the waves… and paddles with us.

Amen.