Streams in the desert

I’m returning to a spiritual discipline from days past, using my camera to see the world in a more mindful way. My intent is to bring images of hope and faith to the forefront in my life.

When I saw this dry, dusty hillside… I knew what scripture spoke to me.

I am about to do something new. It is beginning to happen even now. Don’t you see it coming? I am going to make a way for you to go through the desert. I will make streams of water in the dry and empty land.
Isaiah 43:19 NRSV

Cross-Posting: Journeying

This prayer was first posted on the RevGalBlogPals site, a collaborative and supportive network of women clergy and their friends. On the “even” months of the year, I write a prayer for Fridays. Sometimes they are more liturgical in nature, sometimes they reflect the world and its hurts. But most of the time, they echo my own spiritual journey.

A week from tomorrow, the progressive Baptist church where I have been serving these last three and a half years is closing and selling the property to another congregation. For the last eighteen months, the church was not able to pay me. I stayed, as I was there on a minimal, part-time basis anyway, and had full-time employment as a hospice chaplain. Besides, they were my community, my church family, my friends. You don’t walk away from your friends who will be experiencing a death – in this case, the death of a church. (Ok – you CAN walk away, but not for any reason other than selfish ones.)

Now as we round the final turn towards the church closing, I am wrestling with all sorts of questions: Where will I go to church? Where will I find a place to serve? What is ahead for me in ministry? Do I stay in my work as a hospice chaplain, or pursue a full-time placement in a congregation? 

These are all unknowns. And I don’t really need the answers today. Where I will be this week is in the liminal space of the now and the not yet. If I am honest, it is every week of my life, But this week, with the pending change before me, it is more glaring, more challenging.

So I wrote this prayer for my friends at RevGals who may be in a similar space. But I wrote primarily for me as I walk this road with Christ.

SDG

Deb


Looking down a country road, bordered by trees.

Holy One,

The way ahead seems lonely at times, and I fear the unknown…

But You sing,
I AM with you, I am with you always. I will not leave you abandoned.

The silence is awkward at times, and I worry I am missing something…

But you whisper,
I AM calling, I am calling to you in this wilderness. I will make your paths straight.

I am impatient at times as I peer ahead to see what is just over the hill, just out of sight, wanting the future NOW…

And you say,
I AM, I am the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

And I know that I know that you ARE, you are with me.

Thank you. Blessed be.
Amen.

A prayer beyond “thoughts and prayers”

prayercandle
Holy One,

Your children cry out to you,
in anger,
in fear,
in frustration,
in terror,
as we face, together, more gun violence in our country.

For everyone killed in the senseless violence yesterday,
May their families be comforted in the face of overwhelming grief,
Lord, hear our prayer.

For everyone wounded and in shock,
May Your Presence overwhelm their unbearable fear,
and comfort those in pain.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For all who are retraumatized and saturated with their anxiety
and real terror as they relive horrible events in their past,
may they be surrounded by friends and family who bring Your hope and peace.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For politicians who have cared more about contributions than human lives,
May your righteousness weigh heavily on their hearts,
and may they hear your Call to service, not only to re-election.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews,
who deserve a childhood without mass shootings
and face fear in their classrooms,
May you shelter them and reassurance them by your Presence,
and bring caring adults around them for support.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For Your Church, Lord,
for we have turned our eyes away,
or offered half-hearted thoughts and prayers,
May we stand up to those who preach freedom over faith.
May we declare that all persons are valuable and deserving of protection.
May we minister Christ’s justice, peace, and reconciliation.
May we vote our convictions and listen to Your Holy Spirit.
Lord, hear our prayer.

AMEN.


(c) 2019 Rev. Deborah Vaughn. You are welcome to use this prayer with attribution. SDG

How Can I Know God’s Will?

In the last 6 weeks of our church’s Sunday services, we asked the congregation what topics or questions they would like the pastors to preach about. This topic was the one I chose because, believe it or not, there were harder ones!

I offer this sermon with a big dose of humility, and with thanks to the Twinbrook Baptist family for welcoming me into their community and their hearts in our years together.

soli deo gloria


angels1.jpg

How Can I Know God’s Will?
A sermon offered to the people of God
at Twinbrook Baptist Church
July 21, 2019

As I sat and wrestled with this topic in my study this week, a hard truth came to the forefront: absolutely NO ONE has a handle on “Knowing God’s Will.” Or, in the words of 18thcentury poet Alexander Pope, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Yet I, being a fool, am tackling this topic with you this morning. It’s something we all struggle with, if we are honest. How CAN we know God’s Will? That is, if it is even possible! In the rush and reality of life, many times our decisions are our “best guess in the moment.”

What do we do in circumstances where there are two (or more) decent choices… which one is right? There are life decisions which are important: this house? this spouse? this car? this college? this treatment for my cancer? And then, there are a thousand less critical, but still important, decisions that we make all the time!

Some of the pontificating I read this week was, in a word, laughable. It’s all very well and good to write things such as, “like church patriarch George Müller, set aside time early every morning to pray and seek the Lord’s face.” Or… “go to a quiet place each day and sit in silence.” And the reality is that we are hard-pressed to find the time to pay bills, do the laundry, and wash the dishes, let alone walk the dogs, vacuum, and put out the trash. And, if you are still working, go to work. Life seems impossibly full to go “sit in silence.”

Solitude, prayer, and meditation are excellent spiritual disciplines. But quite honestly, knowing God’s Will does not depend on your doing them.

As I unwrapped this topic, there were three main ideas that surfaced for me:

  1. We can know God’s Will when we understand WHO God is
  2. We can know God’s Will when we understand HOW God is revealed
  3. We can know God’s Will when we understand WHAT God wants for us

So let’s try to unpack this, together.

I. We can know God’s Will when we understand Who God is: Jeremiah 29: 4-14

Knowing God’s Will is based first and foremost on who GOD IS. The Infinite One never changes. The promises of God are forever. The Bible helps us know the nature and character of God. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures express the historical relationship between humans and God, between the Creator and the created.

If you read and learn about God from the past, and hear what God will do, you have a basis for understanding what God’s Will is. And though Scripture expresses historically God’s will, we are a part of discerning it in the present. It takes time, yes. It takes reflection, certainly. It takes a conversation with the God who knows us. Not some esoteric God off in the clouds somewhere.

In our first scripture this morning, Jeremiah 29, we are eavesdropping towards the end of a conversation with God and God’s people in Babylon. Though they feel like outcasts, carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon, God is still intimately involved and engaging them. Thanks to Jeremiah, they are hearing God’s words to them. Specifically. Personally. Prophetically.

We often zero in on the latter verses in this passage. They are certainly verses that comfort me:

“For I know the plans, I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11, NLT)

BUT – if we take these words in context (always a good thing) and go back to the earlier verses in the chapter, there are words of challenge and correction before these words of comfort and hope. God tells them to put down roots, to invest where they are, to work for the prosperity of all. God tells them to avoid those who would mislead them or (bluntly) to avoid those who tell lies in the name of God! And God promises that God will deliver them.

I want to speak for a moment about those who lie and mislead in the Name of God. It is a terrifying thing for me personally to be a preacher and make bold statements about what God wants, or who God is. Far too many preachers and pastors have sold a “cookbook Christianity” that claims everything in our lives will be “in God’s perfect Will” if one does these 7 Steps of Godliness (or whatever it’s titled.) (And that you can buy their book in the lobby after the service.) It’s one of the reasons that many people have left the Church and Christianity. A life of faith is not that simple. It is a life-long pursuit of knowing God more fully, more deeply, more passionately. It’s not a fill-in-the blank book. Sorry. If you were looking for that kind of answer… I will disappoint you.

Jeremiah’s words pull no punches. It is a clear slapdown to false prophets and teachers. (Again.  A moment of reflection and self-examination for this pastor.) It is a smear on the word “Christian” that there are “Christian leaders” who support elected officials who are racist, homophobic, xenophobic and power-hungry. There are so-called “Christian” clergy who hold our government in higher esteem than the God of the Bible. There are self-titled “Christian” churches who claim homophobia as their Gospel. There are businesses who claim they are “Christian” (because they are closed on Sundays?) who discriminate on the basis of sexual and gender identity. Jeremiah would call them “fortune-tellers” or “diviners” – people who use their place of privilege and preferred way of life to speak for God either by implication or by what keeps them in power. You’ve seen them on the news or in advertisements. You know who I mean and I won’t give them credibility by mentioning them by name. But they are not speaking for God!

In the broadest sense of knowing God’s will, you have to know God. Despite distractions and confusion and disappointments. When we know who God is – truly – then we can see our way through the underbrush of decision-making.

A.W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holysuggests there are times where God has an “emphatic no” and an “emphatic yes” — and then there are times where we need to use our own “sanctified preference” and wisdom to make a decision. A decision that is made by beginning with Who. God. Is.

Like Abraham and Sarah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Moses, Solomon, Miriam, Deborah, Mary, Martha, Priscilla, and a host of other God-listeners from the Bible, we can know God’s Will when we know Who God is. The God of every generation.

Day by day,

dear Lord of Thee
Three things I pray:
To see Thee more clearly,
To love Thee more dearly,
To follow Thee more nearly,
Day by day.

– St. Richard of Chichester

II. Secondly, We can know God’s Will when we understand HOW God is revealed. Matthew 6:25-34; Proverbs 3:5-6; 1 Kings 9:11-12

Knowing God’s Will is clearer when we understand how God reveals it.  As you heard in our text, Elijah heard the voice of God not in a thunderclap nor in the windstorm nor fire nor earthquake, but in the “still, small voice of God,” or as the New Living Translation phrases it, “a gentle whisper.”

If we are honest, we prefer a God who is loud and clanging. It’s just easier. Yes. Or no. Black. Or white.

Should I go kill someone?                         
DING DING DING NO!!!!!!

Should I take some of my earnings and support God’s Work in the world?          DING DING DING YES!!!

[THAT WAS EASY]

Our coffeemaker recently died. (I know. Tragic.) Did we play “the hand of fate” and pick one at random from the shelf at a Big Box store? Did we search the scriptures in He Brews? (ha ha) (sorry not sorry) No… Ken did a cursory review of the options and we then picked one and bought it. We used, as Tozer said, our “sanctified preference.” We are among the caffeinated. Thanks be to God!

I’m making light of decision-making, but in reality, there are important decisions that can set off a course of other decisions. Sometimes, our decisions are based on availability and opportunity. Many times, our decisions are based on our wealth, our education, and the color of our skin. Sometimes decisions are made based on reasons that we cannot control. When we buy a house (and where). When we downsize. What kind of car, where we work… Which doctors we choose… And so on. Many times, God is not in the decision-making process at all. At least, not consciously.

But when you are faced with more than one option, how do you choose?

When we are facing multiple decisions, the stress mounts. We resort to a quick fix decision with a sort of “Magic 8 Ball” mentality.

Should I buy a Volvo? “Better not tell you now.”

Should we sell everything and move to Canada?  “All signs point to yes.”

Kevin DeYoung in his book “Just Do Something” says:

“God is not a Magic 8 ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for him.” (p. 24)

The problem is that the popular practice in Christianity is to look for a sign. And we sanctify chance and opportunity as God’s will. We need to use the brains that God gave us.

Have you ever said or heard any of these phrases? Truth telling here — I have!! Let me poke some holes in these common ways we seek God’s Will…

  • Well, I’m looking to the Lord to give me a sign… (um… you have a brain!)
  • God has given me a feeling about this… (only one feeling? and you are basing your decision on a feeling?)
  • I prayed for God to take away this opportunity and God didn’t, so I guess it’s God’s Will…  (Or… maybe you are supposed to resist the temptation to do it?)
  • Please pray with me that I will be able to…  (instead of “please pray that I will know and hear what God asks of me related to…”)
  • I was reading in my Bible and it said, “Go and do likewise…” (I call that Bible Bingo)

Whenever we rely on just our circumstances, and just our intellect, and just our opportunities, we are leaving God out of the picture.

More often than not, God is the waiting companion in our decision making, not the loud air horn. The still, and quiet Voice, the whisper, the faithful One.

It is not easier to know God’s Will if you are a pastor, trust me. Particularly when I am tired and face a tough decision, there is frequently neither a “yes” nor a “no” … just… silence.If you, like me, have been in this journey of faith for a while, you might get a case of “the shoulds”.

…I should know what God wants, but I don’t.
…I should have had an answer by now, but there isn’t one.
…I should spend more time in silence and fasting and prayer, then I’ll know…

Don’t “should” on yourselves!

As a friend of mine rightly commented to me when we were up half the night, “is insomnia God’s way of getting our attention, or is it the result of our late-night run to Taco Bell?” Well… clearly, it was bad choices on our part. That time, anyway.

Knowing God’s Will is not a transaction where you deposit 6 prayers and get an answer. (THAT WAS EASY)

In SEEK YE FIRST – it is the seeking that is important. Not expecting that because you made an attempt to “seek” that you can have what you ask for! We get this idea that it is a contractual agreement.

It’s TRUST in the Lord (despite all my doubts) and keep depending on God…

It’s knowing your beloved-ness in God’s eyes. Your place in God’s heart. You are more valuable than sparrows. You are cared for more than the flowers of the field.

Dr. Renita Weems, Hebrew scholar, and a womanist and feminist theologian, wrote in her book Listening for God:

I had grown so accustomed to believing in a God who spoke thunderously and in spectacular ways that I didn’t think I could survive when it came time to stumble in divine silence. Just as noise cannot always be helped, neither is God’s silence always our fault. It is just part of the journey. I had to learn how to pay attention. I had to learn how to perceive the divine in new ways and in new places. I had to stop peeping behind altars for epiphanies and learn to let the lull between epiphanies teach me new ways for communicating with God, for reverencing the holy, and for listening to God. (p. 22)

Besides the seeming silence of God, there is a problem. The world is getting louder. How do we filter out the 24/7 news cycle or the daily responsibilities that distract us? If you can, turn down the volume on the background noise. It does not guarantee that you will know what God’s will is, but you will have a breather to re-set and listen some more.

I am a social media hound. I admit it. I tweet. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Tumblr. I blog. Sometimes in reading social media posts, God gets my attention. Sometimes it brings needed humor to a bleak news day. Other times, I am off on rabbit trails and diversions. Taking a moment to hit the “mute” button helps me get back my equilibrium.

Now I’m an extrovert. How God leads me will be different for many of you.

How does God lead you? How is God’s Will revealed for you?

It may be in any of the ways I’ve described. It may be something else. It may be in the thunder. It may be in the whisper.

But know this, friends… if we seek, if we ask, if we listen… God will lead us.

III. We can know God’s Will when we understand WHAT God wants for us. Romans 8:18-28

So we’ve talked about how

  • We can know God’s Will when we understand WHO God is
  • We can know God’s Will when we understand HOW God is revealed

Now – let’s think about how we can know God’s Will when we understand WHAT God wants for us, individually and corporately. We frequently get caught up in our OWN questions and prayers. We forget that big picture – what does God want for humanity, as a whole?

The Romans passage that was just read for us sets out the premise:

We are waiting for the day – the day of a future glory, a promised day of redemption. The day God’s people receive their inheritance, and we are released from sin and suffering. We sit in this tension of the present reality and our future hope. The Apostle Paul certainly understood what it meant to suffer, to wait for God’s promise of freedom to be revealed. He describes a longing for release like groaning in childbirth. As pain after pain of childbirth does its job, preparing a woman’s body to deliver a baby, so the suffering we see and experience is a part of our waiting. Absolutely no woman who has given birth will tell you, “oh that was fun! Let’s do that again!” I mean, unless her drugs were awesome!

No, she will more than likely tell you, “it was worth it!” The pain. The recovery.

I was worth it because she is now holding this new life in her arms and marveling at the promise of the future. There is nothing more life-affirming than holding the next generation and seeing all the possibilities of God ahead for this new little person. And, coincidentally, for you, too.

The problem with this Romans passage is that we take a verse out of context and hang onto that as if it were the whole Gospel. We memorize it in Sunday school and cross-stitch it on pillows!

Romans 8:28

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

That does not mean, “God will take all of my stubbornness, meanness, and stupid mistakes and somehow make them all work out OK.”

But that’s how we see this. Am I right?

I think a better take on it would be, “in spite of my stubbornness, meanness, and stupid mistakes, God loves me, and groans with me as I stumble through this life with God’s love and care supporting me.”

What if God doesn’t answer my prayers (the way I want God to?) Did I not pray enough? Did I say I was going to pray for someone… and then I forgot? Is it my fault that someone’s prayers weren’t answered? Am I such a bad person that God doesn’t listen?

When I was stressing about this one time, my mentor Diann looked at me, smiled, and said, “Deb, your prayers are not that powerful. And you are not more powerful than God!”

Sometimes, maybe we are really praying, “Dear God, please make everything nice for everyone.” We make God the “Trouble Exterminator” – removes all fears and crises in 7 prayers or your money back! That’s not how it works, friends!

It also doesn’t mean that you are praying the “wrong” way, or somehow missed the “bullseye” of God’s will. There is no “center of God’s will.” There is freedom and hope and an infinite number of ways that will honor and please God. So instead of worrying about whether or not you are praying the RIGHT way, start the conversation. Ask God to help US see what God will do in a given situation.

The pain of unanswered prayer is that sometimes, in this broken world we live in, the unwanted happens…

  • A collision on the Beltway
  • A freak accident at the beach
  • A cancer treatment stops working
  • A job is given to someone else
  • A mass shooting rips apart a community, a school, or a workplace
  • A government policy is in place that is horribly wrong

When we know God, when we understand how God is revealed, we have a better understanding of what God wants for us. The three are inter-connected. We grieve when we see terrible things happening because we know it is out of sync with the God we have come to know. We are groaning!

Henri Nouwen, author and Catholic priest, wrote that instead of trying to figure out what God wants, we have to cultivate a listening heart. He says:

“…praying is not only listening tobut also listening with [God].”

and…

“We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow.” (pg 83-84) (Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life.)

In the person of Jesus, we see the full embodiment of God. We find full acceptance in God’s Love. We know forgiveness. We are embraced as children of God, not strangers or immigrants who have to earn our way inside. We are brought to the Welcoming Table, to remember and celebrate together that we are beloved, we are claimed, we are to be living examples of the God we worship.

Jesus lived among us as a testimony of God’s faithfulness. Jesus turned upside the idea that doing “good thing x” means you get a place of favor in God’s eyes. The revolutionary Jesus saved us from ourselves, and sees us with eyes of compassion and full acceptance. We are Beloved. We are claimed, cherished and saved through Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s advocacy for us.

What does God want for us? To be fully loved, fully known, and fully God’s own.

So may be all be. By God’s Grace.

Amen.

BENEDICTION

20 Now may the God of peace—
    who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great Shepherd of the sheep,
    and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—
21 may he equip you with all you need
    for doing his will.
May he produce in us,
    through the power of Jesus Christ,
every good thing that is pleasing to him.
    All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.

Hebrews 13:21-21 (New Living Translation)

When Life Comes Unraveled: Laugh!

unraveled

This is part of a sermon series at Twinbrook Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland. We using some of the ideas for the UNRAVELED resources developed by Lisle Gwynn Garrity at Sanctified Art.


SARAH LAUGHS!!
Unraveled: Seeking God when our Plans fall apart
A sermon offered to the people of God at
Twinbrook Baptist Church
June 23, 2019

“Houston, we have a problem.”

You might recognize that phrase from the Ron Howard film, Apollo 13.Those were the understated words of astronaut Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) as they realized that there was an issue with the oxygen tanks on their spacecraft. In the days that followed, NASA and the three astronauts on the Odysseyovercame every obstacle to get safely home.

It was NOT that whey thought would happen. They had a detailed flight manual. They had onboard computers that were supposed to provide guidance data. But disaster hit when the service module oxygen tanks exploded. The flight plan was scrubbed. NASA and the flight crew never stopped looking for a way to make it a “successful failure.”

In a way, that is what we have been planning here at TBC. A “successful failure” – a church closing. Where we looked at our assets and decided to invest them into the future. Where we can take the funds from the sale of the building, and invest them in ministries and nonprofits that have been a meaningful part of this congregation’s life and ministry. It takes courage to be willing to do this.

When I saw the ideas behind this sermon series, Unraveled: Seeking God when our plans fall apart, I said to Pastor Jill, “This is us! This is Twinbrook Baptist Church!” We are in a season of unraveling… in every way.

The challenge has been, and will be, seeing God in the midst of our church life, especially since it isn’t what we wanted it to be. In all of the books that I read on closing a church, they basically all said basically the same thing: “pray, love each other, make a plan, and then throw the plan out the window.” Like the Apollo 13 crew, we are past lift-off, and we are waiting to see how it all ends.

Whatever challenge we face as a church, whatever struggle you are dealing with personally, you might say it is IMpossible. But God invites us to believe it is imPOSSIBLE!

I. imPOSSIBLE! Genesis 18:1-25

Our first text this morning tells the very real struggle of an elderly couple. They had moved from their homeland of Ur, and travelled as God asked, and still did not have the start of that “great nation” God had promised them. You remember that when Abraham and Sarah were known as Abram and Sarai, God promised them that they would be the progenitors of more descendants than the stars in the sky, and that they would inhabit a new land.

Pretty hard to have to have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky if your wife is barren! But, Abraham believed God.

weepingmother
© 2008 LMAP, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Now not being able to have your own biological children is a painful and sad reality for many people. Some of my friends have struggled with conception and carrying a baby to term. It is heartbreaking. Being told, ‘oh, you can adopt’ or ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ is both insensitive and unkind. When you know that you want to be a mother or father… and you believe you are called to parenthood… and you have to wait and trust God in the process… those are very difficult and lonely weeks… years… decades…

It means that you are wondering, questioning, and then resigning yourself, in faith, to a waiting hopefulness, all the while going about life. Sometimes you laugh in a bit of dark humor. But you always hurt. Lisa Manterfield, blogger and writer about her own infertility puts it this way:

There are two questions I get asked frequently: How did you come to terms with not having children, and how long did it take? The answer is something akin to “how long is a piece of string and how many knots can you tie in it?”

Remember that in the era of the Patriarchs, there was no knowledge of how conception

barren
© 2008 eflon, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

really happened. Was it Sarah being barren? Or Abraham being infertile? The term used to describe Sarah was like a field that was too inhospitable to seed. A uterus of rocks, if you will. The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney points out that there is no place in the Hebrew Bible where the man is reported to have “bad seed” – yet every gardener knows it is in indeed possible to get a spoiled or mildewed bag of seed. (See: Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Wilda C. Gafney. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2017. 33-34.)

It didn’t matter – in patriarchal culture, it was always the woman’s fault. By the time the 3 strangers showed up at their tent, Sarah was menopausal, so it was a moot point. There are no buns in the oven. Imagine, in this this patriarchal culture, a woman’s body not doing what it was expected to do. Imagine, having been given a promise that you will be progenitors of a great nation, that your body fails, month after month, year after year, to conceive and bear a child. Women’s bodies are, without fail, biological reminders of this fertility cycle.

So they say she will conceive and bear him a child. Yes, she laughed. Because the ups and down of life are, quite simply, incredible, unbelievable, hilarious. Why did Sarah laugh? She was 90 years old! Do you know any pregnant 90 year olds?

Yes! We all laughed! And so did Sarah.

Laughing at the IMpossible, however, is different than laughing with joy at the imPOSSIBLE! It seemed unreasonable to believe that Abraham and Sarah would have their own progeny. In some way, in some kernel of faith, they believed.

Dr. Walter Brueggemann writes about the way that the Gospel is not conventional wisdom, where what we expectis what will happen. He says,
“By his powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness… Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. Barrenness has now become ludicrous.” (See: Interpretation: Genesis. Walter Brueggemann. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 158-9; 182.)

When God speaks to them through the three strangers who visit their tent, they hear that Sarah will be pregnant… Sarah laughs. The stranger responds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Genesis 21:14)

“Too wonderful” or “too hard” or “impossible”… these are not words that are a part of our understanding of a Holy One who could do anything. The root word includes concepts like “beyond one’s power” and “difficult to do.” Where we say IMpossible, God says, POSSIBLE!

It takes courage to move past laughter when we are faced with the IMpossible. It also takes laughter… and how God answers the imPOSSIBLE with a Son of Laughter.

Part II: Genesis 21:1-7 The Son of Laughter

pumpkin
© 2007 julie, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

imPOSSiBLE! That a plain yellow pumpkin can become a golden carriage!
imPOSSIBLE! That a plain country bumpkin and a prince can join in marriage!

The opening words of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song between Cinderella and her fairy godmother have been on my mind all week.

The promise made to Sarah and Abraham – when she was in her sixties and he in his seventies falls into the category of… imPOSSIBLE!!! Or at least biologically unlikely. As they say, “that ship has sailed.” Or “Estrogen has left the building.” The imPOSSIBLE happens. Incredible as it seems, Sarah will need the midwives.

Years have gone by. Abraham is 100. Sarah is 90. Yet they have a child of the promise – Isaac. Yitschaq. Whose name means “he laughs.” It also can mean “mockery” or “joking” – as in, “you thought you were done having children… just joking!”

The intervening years have not been easy since the visit by the three strangers. The patriarch of this future great nation… has no sons by his wife, Sarah. Yes, he does have a son by a slave woman, Hagar – whose body was used for this purpose.

Let’s pause for a moment and recognize that Hagar had no choice in this matter, but was, effectively, forced to have his child. I doubt she saw it as a choice. She was… a slave… who was raped. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?

The truth of the matter is that, at that time, it was SO important to have children, particularly MALE children, that Sarah told Abraham to do it.

The intervening years were full of bad decisions which I can’t go into because of time, but are worth remembering. These were not perfect people, but they were faith-filled people. They lied. They took matters into their own hands. But they believed God. Quite a juxtaposition of faith and human nature, isn’t it?

Friends of our family have three wonderful children. Before the birth of their third child, they had the usual sonogram and were told “it’s a girl!” Since they had two sons already, they were thrilled beyond words. Friends threw a baby shower and there was SO MUCH PINK STUFF. They joked about not knowing how to raise a girl. The baby was born, and it was – to their shock — a boy!! And they laughed. And laughed!! And yes. They named him Isaac!

In moments of emotional extremes, you hear people say, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!” The two emotions are very close together. In our happiest moments, we cry. In our saddest moments, we cry. Both use the tear ducts and the diaphragm – and our bodies are very good at connecting the two.

In fact, we were made that way – to cry and laugh at the same time. Sarah laughed. What was that laughter about?

It might have been laughter of incredulousness. Laughter of shock. Laughter of surprise. Laughter of absurdity. Laughter in the face of fear. Laughter of disbelief.

I can’t tell you why Sarah laughed. It might have been for any of these reasons. But I do know this: Though God’s timing for this baby boy, Isaac, was not when they expected it, it still happened. God’s heart and hand were still in their lives. God knew their faith and their doubts. God works in spite of stubbornness. God heard their laughter and it was not held against them. Nothing was beyond God’s forgiveness and grace. Nothing was “too much” for God to do.

I can’t tell you that the “thing” you are waiting for, (whatever it is), will work out the way you want it to. But I can tell you that we – you and I – have a God who sees our tears and hears our laughter of disbelief – and who does not judge us.

In this crazy mess of life – we praise God. And laugh.

Part III: Proverbs 17:22; Sirach 30:21-25 Healing Laughter

laughter
© 2006 kellinahandbasket, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Our final scriptures this morning talk about the healing power of laughter. It’s always fascinating to me to see how emotions are contagious. People start giggling at joke, and bystanders start laughing – before they hear the joke. We see people smile. We smile. We hear people laugh. We laugh. There are times I can NOT look at Regina because… she will make me laugh. You all know what I mean…

Those of us of a certain age might remember Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, M*A*S*H, or The Beverly Hillbillies. (Or you’ve seen them on re-runs.) All of those comedies had laugh tracks. The producers experimented and discovered that more people would laugh if there was a laugh track. If people laughed, they didn’t turn off the TV show, and then they would watch the commercials. (And you understand, right? The purpose was to get you to watch the commercials!) It was also cheaper to tape a show, use a laugh track, and not wait for the audience to laugh correctly.

The news this week has been discouraging, hasn’t it? I have found it hard to stay positive, and caring, and do my job every day. You’re not imagining it if you’ve felt that way, too. If you keep track of the news, it can discourage the most optimistic. The world we inhabit has crazy stuff going on. Crazy. We cannot combat the evil that we see if we do not take time to re-set our emotional True North.

When things unravel around us – whether personal or political – it becomes even more important to honor the feelings and stress that we feel. And, as we are able, to reconnect to the things that give us perspective. And laughter.

In The Washington Post this week, there was an article about humor and health. Researchers found that laughter not only has psychological benefits, but physiological ones, too. When we laugh, our lungs expand, and more oxygen gets to our heart, lung, and vital organs. We breathe more deeply. Our blood pressure goes down. We feel more connected to others, because – let’s face it – funny people are fun to be around!

In illness, humor helps you cope with uncertainty and inconvenience. It gives you control. It makes you feel like whatever you are coping with – even if it is going to be chronic – is do-able. It shows the world that you are still here and kicking. As comedian Rob Reiner said, “Every morning, get up and read the paper. If you aren’t in the obits, then eat breakfast!”

It works!

d320af80-0262-4c9b-9c6d-9db09dade061
“Ugly George”

I applied this strategy with my recent knee surgery. I was fitted with a knee brace that, from time to time, I still use when my joint is going to be under extra stress or my knee is extra achy. And I named it “Ugly George.” Because… well… look at it!!

Humor gets us through a lot of tough life events.

A few days before my Dad died, he was hospitalized. One night, he fell in his hospital room, and of course the hospital staff were worried about him. They performed the usual tests to make sure he hadn’t gotten a concussion or a serious injury. They asked him, “Do you know where you are?” And Dad responded, “Why yes! I’m at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, in Beaufort, South Carolina.” The staff member said, “Oh that’s perfect!” Dad didn’t miss a beat. He held up the bed linens, prominently stamped with the name of the hospital, and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a cheat sheet?”

I’m not talking about the laughter from mocking others, of course. It’s not when we ridicule or heckle someone. It’s not making fun of someone. And, sad to say, a lot of comedy these days is insulting… and not very funny. This is the kind of laughter that encourages, invites, and engages. It is the welcome relief from pain, or grief, or stress.

How many of you have faced a parenting moment where you laughed until you just cried. I think every parent has a story. I have them. One Christmas, we all had the flu. One by one, we succumbed to that virus that includes a fever, puking, you know… fa la la la la toilet… la la la la…

It. Was. Terrible. I was curled up on the couch with one of the kids, and she threw up all over me. My parents were visiting. It was… grand. I looked up with tears in my eyes, and said to my mom, “NOW what?” Mom, with the calm demeanor of the mother of seven children said, “well, when you both stop dripping, go get cleaned up.”

I sighed. And then, I laughed.

When you both stop dripping…it still makes me laugh.

In this final set of scriptures, we read these words:

From Sirach: A joyful heart is life itself, and rejoicing lengthens one’s life span.

From Proverbs: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

Laughter is healing. Laughter is holy. Laughter, is above all, a good gift from God. May we learn to respond, like Sarah, to our moments of longing, sadness, or even disbelief, and laugh.

Amen.

Can you hear Me NOW?

Can you hear Me NOW?
A sermon for the people of God
at Greenbelt Community Church
Greenbelt, Maryland
June 16, 2019

Thank you for the warm welcome. It is good to be back here, and to worship with you. One of these days, I will have to join you and hear my dear friend Pastor G preach… perhaps someday soon!

Hear the Word of the Lord…

Proverbs 8:1-9 (The Inclusive Bible)

Doesn’t Wisdom call?
Doesn’t Understanding raise her voice?
On the hill along the road,
at the crossroads, she takes her stand;
beside the city gates of the town,
in the gates themselves, she cries out,
“Women and men, people everywhere,
I’m calling out to you!
I cry out to all of humankind!
You who are simple, learn how to make sound judgments!
To the foolish among you, use your common sense!
Listen closely, for what I say is worth hearing,
and I will tell you what is right;
for my mouth will speak the truth,
and my lips hate to lie.
Everything I say is right;
none of it is twisted or crooked.
All of it is plan-spoken to those who understand,
clear to those seeking knowledge.”

 

====Please pray with me====

Holy and loving One,
We so often do not listen,
We so frequently do not ask,
And we really don’t like a change in our personal agendas…
But you, Divine One,
Know us so well.
Capture our hearts
Get our attention
And may the words I offer be in tune
With your heart
And Your holy Word.
Amen

====================

CA310646
© 2005 Masahide Kanzaki, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

While I was a music student at Ohio State, we analyzed various scores and printed music for our theory and composition classes. Sometimes we picked the music apart as a class, a kind of joint venture of a musical autopsy. Other times, we were handed a portion for an exam, and were expected to dissect it on our own. Complex or simple, I had a deep appreciation for the great works we studied. But the music that never failed to amaze me were the ones that were written when the composer was… deaf.

Their inner muse was so strong, so well-developed, that though they were deaf, they could create symphonies and string quartets and never hear a note of it. The works of composers like Beethoven and Smetana, Fauré and Vaughn Williams stunned me when I realized that they never heard them performed.

They never stopped listening. Even when they could not hear.

  • Our texts this morning invite a new kind of listening. They ask us, even though we may be tone deaf to God’s speaking to us, that we try and listen anyway!
  • Whether it is seen or known, the Scriptures this morning invite us to HEAR the words of truth, to become aware of the voice of Wisdom and Understanding.
  • Our texts this morning invite us to engage with the Created world around us in new ways. To see. To hear. To praise. To worship. To respond.

The problem is that we are, so often, slogged down in the everyday drone of life. And it drowns out our attempts to love and follow God!

Gotta pay the bills
Gotta pick up the kids
Gotta do the laundry
Gotta fix dinner
Gotta get groceries
Oops the cat threw up… gotta clean that up.

And then as every parent knows… the end of the school year hits:
Gotta get teacher gifts
Gotta help the kids study for exams
Gotta get poster board for that last project
Gotta find that band shirt for the concert (And does it still fit? That was Christmas!)
Gotta get good seats at graduation
Gotta sign the kids up for camp
Gotta find a hotel for vacation

AND… if you are dealing with a chronic illness…
Gotta get a scan and blood test
Gotta see this specialist
Gotta try a new medication
Gotta
Gotta
Gotta

We are on this treadmill existence, going nowhere fast!

The Divine invites us –
To reprogram
To reboot
To re-engage with the world around us!

Listen! Think! Look! Praise!

Listen! God says: “Doesn’t wisdom call?”
Think!  God suggests: “Doesn’t Understanding raise her voice?”
Look!   God’s people respond: “When I look up at your heavens…
Praise! God’s people sing: “How majestic is your name in ALL the earth!”

2012-02-16 17.01.12
The *@%$!! Washington Beltway

That’s not “normal” mode for human beings. Well… I know it isn’t for me. I might do OK at the “Praise” part on Sunday mornings. But by Tuesday afternoon’s rush hour… um… well… there are different words on my tongue.

Charles Hummel published a booklet in 1961 titled The Tyranny of the Urgent.  In this small volume, he suggested that there is always tension between things that are urgent and things that are important—and far too often, the urgent wins.

Yes. Far too often, the urgent wins. Anyone who has ever had their tasks changed at work because the Boss says, “I gotta have this today” knows exactly what Hummel meant!

We who are locked into our smart phones and Outlook calendars, and have trouble remembering to PRIORITIZE what God thinks is important… Can we learn to not just do the next thing?? Not just respond to the next email, the next tweet, the next voicemail?

I’m not there yet. But I’m working on it. I’m really bad at “unplugging” actually, but I keep trying. Because how can I hear “the still, small voice” of God when I’m not listening for it? “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW???” God asks…

Um… nope. Not really…

migration
More seagulls than people!

Every year, I look forward to vacation, when I try to reconnect with the created world around me. Quite honestly, I am looking forward to getting away… Before I see you again in July, we will journey to a place where there are more seagulls than people. Where the loudest noise I hear is the wind in the sea grass and palm branches, and the biggest decision I have to make is where I will take my afternoon nap… on the beach? …in the hammock? …or at poolside?

IMG_8226
Sunset over a tidal marsh.

And as my blood pressure goes down, and freckles reappear on my nose… I breathe deeply and watch the day unfold at a pace that has nothing to do with the clock, and everything to do with the rhythm of sun and sand and sea. I make time at sunset to watch the birds come in to roost in the marsh, and see the shadows grow longer over the sand dunes. I hold star charts overhead and marvel at the number and intensity of the planets and constellations when the city lights are fading. I look for sea turtle hatchlings.

cropped-2014-08-07-03-16-45-1.jpg
An egret taking off over a tidal marsh.

In short, I am immersed in the physical world I can see, whether or not I can understand it. Because I don’t need to be able to explain the reasons why stars twinkle to marvel at the number of them. I can watch fireflies (or lightning bugs – whatever you call them) and not know if they are advertising for a mate or just doing what they do… blink… blink… blink…

We are far from being hunter-gatherers or shepherds like the writer of the Psalms. But even if you ARE a botanist or an astrophysicist, you can still marvel at the way that our planet moves from season to season, and sustains humans and animals.

Terry Tempest Williams in her book When Women Were Birds wrote:

Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.

The world is meant to be celebrated! BUT – also to be cared for… The Psalmist was aware that the entire Created world was under humanity’s dominion. Everything in the air, the sea, and on the land was given to humanity to care for…

How aware are we of our stewardship…
When plastics pile up in our landfills and pollute our oceans?
When we depend on fossil fuels in increasing ways?
When we do not ensure that the vulnerable, the weak and the hurting have clean water, clean air, and enough food?
When Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water after 5 years…
When there are famines in one part of the world, and food waste in the other?

Doesn’t Wisdom call?
Doesn’t Understanding raise her voice?
Doesn’t the Holy One call to us, asking, “Can you hear Me NOW?”

Today –

When you walk out into the warm sunshine or cope with a sudden summer thunderstorm,

Who will you thank?
Who will you praise?
Whose heart will speak to yours?

Can you hear Me NOW? God asks…

May our answer be… YES.

Amen.

Sunday Prayer: Unfolding

I wrote this prayer as part of the daily offerings on RevGalBlogPals. (Original posting is HERE!) I’m cross-posting it here because it comes from my heart and spirit, not knowing all the answers, but knowing Who holds them…

Peaceroses
Chicago Peace rose in our back yard.

Holy One,

We watch things unfold,
day by day,
sometimes hour by hour,
never really knowing why or when
there will be a turn of events
or changes in our plans.

Unfolding,
slowly, gently, melding,
You help us in synchronicity
with Your Grace.

Sometimes we won’t listen.
Sometimes we bolt the other way.
Always, always, always,
There You are,
Bending out the next petal,
Subtling shading our hearts’ responses.

Unfolding,
perfectly, smoothly, humbly,
Your heart changing ours.

Unfolding…

So may it be. Always and forever. Amen.