Grace upon grace

In her commentary on the Gospel of John, Dr. Karoline Lewis uses a phrase that has become a mantra of hope and encouragement to me:

“Grace upon grace…”

What does grace upon grace sound like? It sounds like when you are deader than dead and you hear your name being called, by the shepherd who knows you and loves you, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb, unbound to rest at the bosom of Jesus. Dr. Karoline M. Lewis, John: (Fortress Preaching Biblical Commentaries.) © 2014 Fortress Press. Minneapolis. p. 160.

These last few weeks I have needed extra touches of God’s Grace. With our church, Twinbrook Baptist, making the decision to sell our building, and gift out the proceeds rather than spend down our resources, there’s been a mixed bag of feelings. At times, my joy has been “deader than dead” but then God’s grace appears and restores me.

I’ve watched my friend and pastor, Jill, and our church leadership respond with honest, heartfelt feelings – but also serve with open-hearted kindness and grace. We have embraced hope. We’ve laughed. We have worshiped with joy. We have reminded ourselves that we are Resurrection people. We have hugged and reassured. We’ve bitched (a little — just human!) And we’ve cried. When I took the last boxes home from my church office on Sunday after worship, the tears flowed down my cheeks.

But grace… Grace has never been far away. God has shown up in a number of grace-filled ways.

I found this photo this morning, snapped unintentionally by my smartphone as I headed home from working out last night. I totally missed it at the time. I was intent on getting a shower and doing some charting. This vista, this contrast of light and dark brought hope and encouragement. The beauty is there, ready to proclaim God’s glory. Do I notice?

“Grace upon grace…”

To provide a backdrop for a sermon on hospitality by Pastor Jill McCrory, I brought this quilt, a family heirloom, to use for the communion table. Its presence on the altar immediately provoked stories and sweet memories by congregants. Who knew this “grandmother’s flower garden” would provide joy and comfort for our last regular worship service? I just pulled it out as a whim. God knew.

“Grace upon grace…”

 I tried to have a healthy snack and boost to my lunch today, so I stopped to get a protein smoothie. Banana-strawberry. Mmmmm… Except the lid was not on tightly and it decorated my white pants! The employee who served my smoothie was embarrassed because she saw what had happened. I frantically tried to clean up the splotches with napkins. She ran to the back of the store and came out with a stain remover pen. “Here! Take this!” I went to my car, mopped up the stain, and brought it back, profusely thankful. She wouldn’t take a tip. So I told her manager how grateful I was and that she needed a bonus.

“Grace upon grace…”

I’m sure there will be more examples. Now I’m more aware of what the Grace of God can do in my boring, everyday, grumpy life. Maybe yours, too?

I’m being intentional. Mindful. Looking for grace every moment. Focusing on the things that show love and joy and faithfulness. Taking a short, private cussing break when the feelings overflow. (Like I said… just being real!) Looking up to see… God. There. Always.

Lauren Daigle wrote a song that is on my “repeat” playlist right now. It’s keeping me going… a love song from God reminding me to Look Up Child.

Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. Hebrews 12:14-15

So may it be.


Advent 3C: Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
18 “I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
19 At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
20 At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the Lord.
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [CEB}

We round the corner on the third week of Advent and the dancers are getting in formation. The orchestra is tuning up. There’s a bit of a last-minute rehearsal, checking costumes, reviewing the dance moves, and focusing on what is just about to happen.

There’s a change this week in the texts. It’s not just that we are one week closer to the Christmas celebration. It’s the timbre of the words – the Promises of God are closer to being fulfilled. It’s like being in a long queue for a midnight movie premier and seeing the staff come over to open the doors to the theatre… (cough, cough. Not that I did that for The Hobbit premier or anything…) 🙂 No, the words bring the glimpse of the future tantalizingly close. While the time of introspection and personal preparation is still important, there is a lightening of the mood, a chance to finish the party preparations.

In traditional Church teaching, the third Sunday is Gaudete Sunday and the vestments (if your church uses them) change from penitential purple to a joyous pink. The third candle, the pink one, is lit on the Advent wreath. The word “Gaudete” comes from the verses I’ll reflect on later this week and are from Philippians 4: “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“Rejoice in the Lord always”). (So YES – it matters that we light the pink candle this week and not another purple one. Ahem.)

Zephaniah’s words bring joyous promises – of being returned from exile, finding God’s favor, and the thrill of worshipping again in God’s presence. For those who are suffering persecution today, these words are encouraging. For those who are facing life-limiting illness, they remind us of the Hope of heaven. For those who are weighed down with burdens of grief and depression, there is a light shining, dim but promising, in the distance.

In days like these, where we watch the news, saddened with grief over deaths that never should have been, the muted strains of celebration are simply non-existent. We can’t hear them over the cries of pain, of parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, and relatives mourning. In the depths of our hearts, we cling to God’s promises and remind ourselves of Christ’s words to us:

“I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 [ESV]

The promised joy of the Christ Child is linked to the promised return of Christ the King. Before our very eyes we will see God bring justice, peace, and an end to suffering. In the time of school shootings and senseless civil war, this is good news, indeed.

Today I take a moment to find the glory of God in the world around me, and the faces of people I love…

RevGals Friday Five: Still Advent, Baby! Edition

Rev. Pat from RevGals has this week’s Friday Five:

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook know I’ve been trying to post Advent music in this season, which is no small trick because, as you well know, it’s been “Christmas” since Halloween in the world out there! So today we focus on Advent and its music– the good, the bad, the new and the as-yet-unheard!

1. First, do you come from a tradition in which the Advent season is embraced? This is not true for all of us. If you do, what is your personal preference? Do you love it or hate it? Embrace it or want it to go away already? How enthusiastically does your church enter into Advent?

Advent was important in some of my church experiences, and not others. I’m about as much of a ecclesiastic mutt as one can be. I find great beauty in the discipline of WAITING, not rushing to the story of Bethlehem and the Christ Child. In fact, I was jarred by “Joy to the World” being sung last week by the worship team. (Sorry folks. It is NOT TIME YET!) So – obviously – the church where we are serving now calls it “Advent” but stumbles into Christmas frequently.

2. What is your favorite Advent music? (A tiny hint about mine can be found above.) Link to a favorite piece if you can.

Ah… well let’s look at some chant and plainsong, shall we?

There’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel… (And – BIG bias here from a music nerd – I DO NOT like the ones that use instruments and drums in the arrangements!!! It’s plainsong, folks, not a rock ballad! I can handle some strings or harp… limited drums and regular meter… but… OK. I made my point!)

Ad te levavi… (Psalm 25)

In more of a Christian contemporary style, there’s Michael W. Smith’s Prepare Ye the Way. (It was hard to find a version of this song with graphics that didn’t drive me nuts. Maybe just listen to it without the movie…)

And a more contemporary choral piece by Christine McIntosh called simply, Advent Song.

3. What Advent music makes your skin crawl– or at least annoys you and makes you wish it were Christmas already?

Ummm… it is “life in a minor key” for 3+ weeks. But really, it’s not THAT bad.

4. Any Advent discoveries or re-discoveries? Again, we love links– share your music with us!

I’ve alluded to several above and in previous posts related to my Advent scripture devotionals… take a peak. (There’s too many to re-post!)
5. Tell us how your Advent is going this year. Lost in a haze of church busyness? Finding ways to sit quietly in the darkness and wait? Give us your tips for a really rich Advent experience!

I’ve made it point to take TIME for my reading and writing this Advent. Several posts have not gone up because it is not the appointed “time” to make them public. There’s been plenty of concerts, cookie baking, errands, etc. I still have a lot of shopping to finish, but it’s all fun, not stressful at all. Since I am a chaplain, I’m not leading, planning or preaching this year (which I truly miss — the only down side of being a chaplain!) So instead, I’ve been spending more time reflecting and writing.

Advent 2C – Philippians 1:3-11 “On the Day of Christ Jesus”

My first take on today’s reading was, “How the HECK does this fit into Advent?” It isn’t exactly a Scripture that screams baby Jesus in the manger…

A second read, a third read, and I got it. It is that one little phrase:
the day of Christ Jesus

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

9 This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.
Philippians 1:3-11 [CEB]

Advent is a time of anticipation in our celebration of the Christ Child. But it is also a longing look ahead — to the return of Christ, when earthly pursuits will cease and the agenda will be set by Christ the King. That’s a bit of a mind-shift from the state of “gimme-gimme” and “buy-buy-buy” that consumes us. It’s a day when our “to do” lists become meaningless.

These verses in Philippians tell us “in the mean time” there are things we need to do. If we follow Paul’s example, we will be very busy! His letter to the church in Philippi is full of action in the spiritual realm.

  • I thank God for you
  • I pray for you
  • I’m glad for you
  • I sure about God’s good work in you
  • I keep you in my heart

I remembered something else as I studied this letter. Paul was in prison when he wrote to this fledgling church. He was awaiting trial and eventual execution. He was destitute without the support of the churches. And the one in Philippi provided emotional and financial support. Despite his discouraging circumstances, he poured himself as an ambassador and encourager for Christ.

There are times in a period of waiting, longing, and even mourning, that it is hard to persevere. The words of love Paul poured out to the Philippians were certainly as a result of the love he had received. What goes around, comes around… for we are all poor, wayfaring strangers. Waiting… waiting… waiting… for the day Christ comes or we go home.

Discerning, Waiting, and Pondering…

This week I saw my Spiritual Director for the first time in about a month. A trip to the West Coast, finishing my fourth and LAST! unit of CPE, starting a short-term chaplaincy contract all contributed to our schedules not meshing. She listened, I talked and cried (a little), and then came the question:

SO. How do you think you can combine your vocations?

Because, as we had discussed, I am a pastor AND a chaplain. I love to preach the Word and tend God’s Sheep, as well as be Present with those who need a spiritual companion. I am a feminist AND a Christian. I am a trapazoidal peg in a theological world of round or square holes. And there are times I feeling like I’m playing with the “shape sorter ball” of my children’s childhood…  For you see, there are a LOT of different pieces I could pick up and “fit” into as a pastor or chaplain. But I’m not seeking to “do it all” — just trying to move in the direction where I am best equipped to work.

A recent job opening came to my attention. There was LOTS to like about it; I was initially intrigued. But when I went a little deeper into the cultural boundaries of the position, I quickly decided I should not take my application any further and declined to interview. If I can’t speak to the issues of my heart: of equality, of service, of environmental responsibility, of attachment parenting, of spirituality being more than rules… then I am not the person they want. And I’ll save us both heartache if I just move on.

And I’m trying to move on. But I keep looking back at the job, as it if were in the rearview mirror, thinking: Well, what if I SAID that could agree with their stance on “______” just to be accommodating and show compassion to their community? And “work to change it from the inside” as a member of the team?

And just as quickly, I shake my head and re-direct. NO, no, no!! The values I hold are important. And a driving force. And can’t be compromised.

The affirmation and encouragement I hear from supervisors and peers, from my closest and best advisors, including my husband of 25 years, all tell me to hang in there and wait. To listen, discern and WAIT. And as I pray, to look with an expectant heart towards where God wants me.

A few days ago, when I was really struggling with this waiting business, I received emails from a couple of friends who had taken the first ministry assignment they were offered when they graduated from seminary. They are unhappy. They don’t know what to do. And they asked for my prayers as they discern what to do next.

At least I know I am in good company.

So for my searching friends…. and for me, there is a deeper answer. It’s not finding the “perfect” fit in a ministry job. It’s not about being in a high-powered church with book deals. It’s not even about making money (though, let’s face it, I’m ready to have a job that pays a bit more than minimum wage.)

It’s about nurturing that love I have for God and God’s people, and seeing what I do, this work that I’m called to, as a labor of love, bringing a smile to God’s face.

I think I can live with that!

23 Whatever you do, do it from the heart for the Lord and not for people. 24 You know that you will receive an inheritance as a reward. You serve the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3, CEB)

Five Worshipful Moments for Holy Week

Mary Beth from RevGalBlogPals writes:

Holy Week is upon us.

Realizing that most of our readers are clergy, and that clergy don’t necessarily have the opportunity to fully worship when they are responsible for leading (creating, writing, facilitating) worship:

I invite you to share five favorite Holy Week things, five things that are truly worshipful for you. It may be that it’s the way they are done in your congregation (or were done in a previous one).  It may be your personal preparation for certain services or observances.

Breathe.  Be still.  Look to the week ahead, and Holy Weeks past, and imagine the worship.

This is timely and a true blessing to complete. I am finishing my fourth unit of CPE and spent a great deal of time reflecting on where I have grown and where my growing edges remain. One of my reflections included the fact that I have strengthened my own Spiritual Pathways (based off of Gary Thomas’ book) and in spite of life’s events and challenges, feel a stronger connection than ever to my God.

For this Holy Week, here are some things which I will rest in…

1. Taking time to do something that engages the beauty of the world around me. It may even be a chore (like gardening) but I will do it in the Spirit of experiencing and enjoying the Presence of God.

2. Stopping to pray and sing a few hymns… probably I’ll just open up the hymnal when everyone has gone to school/work. For certain, it will include a few “yards” of Bach. (The term “yard” is from my dad — but aptly describes the chorales in the form that organists see them.)

3. Reminding myself that one day, we all will bow down to the only wise God, and our shouts of Hosannah! will ring true. In contrast to Bach, this is a contemporary song, but I love the words and their intent.

4. Time with family. This year I will be on the West Coast with my sister and other family members. Other years, we’ve gone to the beach. It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m sharing this season with my kin.

5. Re-read the Passion Scriptures.

Bonus:  a piece of music that “is” Holy Week for you.

This is a really hard one… And I can’t pick just one. For starters, O Sacred Head and Were You There? for Good Friday. Then on Easter, Handel’s Messiah.  But in between, it will depend on my mood and what speaks to my heart. It could be instrumental, choral, contemporary or classical.