Archive for September, 2012

September 30, 2012

I’m Afraid

Excuses, Excuses: I’m Afraid  Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

As we end our “Excuses, Excuses” sermon series today and thus our discussion on what can hold each of us back from relationship with God—I think we’ve saved one of the most important excuses for last, an excuse that all of us struggle with regularly. And this is it: we are held back from the new horizons, possibilities and dreams that God has for us because we are afraid. We are afraid of the unknown. We are afraid of losing what we had in the past. We are afraid of what we cannot control in the future.

We all know about fear because fear is something that each of us deal with if not every day, regularly.

Albert Hitchcock in fact once said, “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

No matter who or what is the big, bad wolf in your life, this fact unites us: we all have fears that keep us back from God’s best for our lives. We won’t start new relationships because we’re afraid of getting hurt.  We won’t apply for new jobs because we fear we won’t get them. We won’t get out of bed on some days because we fear it won’t be better than the day before.

We fear losing the approval of those we love. We fear being exposed for who we really are. We fear making really big mistakes. We fear loneliness. We fear poverty. We fear fear itself, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said.

In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, we encounter a woman who like us wrestled with fear but courageously preservers—modeling for us a different way of being with our “I’m afraid” excuses.  Esther is this woman’s name. And although her name might sound familiar or at least maybe sometime you’ve seen it in the table of contents of your Bible—few of us really know the story of her life and why this particular tale ended up in the scriptures in the first place.

As the story goes, Esther was a young girl, an orphan of Jewish descent who was taken in by her older cousin Mordecai when her parents died. Her adopted father, Mordecai was a descendant of those who were captured when Jerusalem fell to Babylon (and thus went into exile) about 100 years before.  However, since the Babylonians fell to the Persians, Mordecai, Esther and the other Jewish people are now living under control of this new king, Xerxes.  And life isn’t easy living for the Jews as a member of the religious minority in the primarily secular culture. If life wasn’t bad enough under the Babylonians, now they were controlled by the Persians. And in this environment, we know nothing else about Esther other than what chapter 2 of Esther tells us that she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”

But, change is brewing in the nation. Much like the tale we might know from British history—where King Henry VIII gets tired of his first wife and divorces her for no good reason other than he wanted more children from a younger virgin wife, so goes the days of their lives in the Palace in Persia. King Xerxes divorced his wife, Vashti and seeks a new bride. The king makes quite a show out of the affair, welcoming a contest to see what young woman attracts his attention the most.

Mordecai encourages young Esther to participate and also forbids her to tell anyone at the palace her true nationality. Esther was to just blend in, not overly mention that she was of the tribe of Benjamin.  And, as Esther goes through the vetting process, she rises to the occasion, attracts the favor of the King and wins the contest. Soon she’ll be made to be the new Queen!

Meanwhile, Mordecai begins to get into some trouble, especially with Haman, the grand vizier to the king.  Mordecai finds out that two of the men in the king’s court are plotting to kill the king and sends word through now Queen Esther about the plot. The king executes the two men and Haman is furious.  He feels that Mordecai, a common man has superseded his position as right hand man to the king.

The best way I can describe it is this: you ask your supervisor’s boss for something instead of going directly to your supervisor and then your supervisor has a chip on their shoulder forever more about you. But, instead of getting over his attitude—and taking a time out for a reset, Haman takes matters into own hands. We read in chapter 4 that he gathers together a group of people to take not only Mordecai’s life but the lives of his tribe, the Jews.

So, what a quandary Esther and Mordecai find themselves in as they learn about Haman’s plans.

The remnant of Israel left in Persia—the people said long ago to be God’s beloved people—soon are about to face a genocide, unknown to them. The only two folks who know about it are Esther and Mordecai. And the only person who can do something about it is truly Esther, the Queen. So, you think she should just go talk to the King about this, don’t you think? But there’s a catch. Yet, let’s remember what happened to the last queen, Vashti. When the King was angry at her and found out she’d deceived him, Vashti was fired on the spot via a royal decree. Esther had not come this far in life—rising from orphaned girl to life in the palace—to throw it all away right now!

I can imagine there was much fear as Mordecai and Esther began to talk through all of this resting on their shoulders. Something needed to be done, but what if it cost them their lives? What if they couldn’t come up with a plan that worked? What if what they tried to do made the situation worse? What if?

Fear, at this juncture could have easily robbed Esther of her place in history, her moment to shine, and her opportunity to be God’s instrument to protect a group of people in need of someone to watch out for them. Fear could have kept Esther locked into a position of deceit. Fear could have stopped God’s light from shinning forth in this dark situation.

But it didn’t.

Esther, laid down the excuse of “I’m Afraid.” And, instead she embraced the opportunity to do her part, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to recognize that God had given her this moment in time to be fully herself.  For though we know that while there were apprehensions on Esther’s part, Mordecai encourages her in chapter 4, verse 14 with these famous words, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Do you, get it, Esther? Do you really get it? God has put you in this position for such a time as this!

One of my favorite books is The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  It tells the courageous story of Corrie and her sister and father, living in a small town in Holland during the time of World War II, taking the great risk of hiding Jews in their home knowing that these acts could one cost them their own lives.

In describing her upbringing and what brought her to this point in her life of feeling as if such an “I’m not afraid” type of attitude came over her, Corrie tells this story from her childhood:

Corrie, as young child, was upset thinking about her father dying someday. It made her quite upset as it would any child who loved their father very much. As was his habit, he sat down at the edge of her bed to tuck her in.

“Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?”

Corrie sniffed a few times feeling overcome with the emotion but gathered up enough courage to answer her father’s question, “Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t rush ahead of Him. When the time comes…you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time.”

So also was true, I believe of Esther at this juncture. At just the right moment she knew what she had to do.  And, though the word “God” is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, making it the only one of its kind in all of scripture—we clearly see the leading of the divine at work. God is preparing and leading Esther for exactly the role that has already been prepared for her to play in this story.

Look with me at chapter 7. The plan is in motion—Esther seeks the perfect time to speak on behalf her people to the king, throwing a party in his honor. And at this party, look with me at verse 3 to see what Esther says to the king, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people.”

Without backing down, without letting her fear control her, Esther boldly stands up and uses her position to ask for mercy not only for herself but for everyone else whose lives were in danger.  The king grants her request, and the gallows that were originally built by Haman for Mordecai were now used for all those who plotted against the Jewish people, unfairly.

Sigh. What a relief! The king showed Esther favor! All was well.

As we process this story, what I think is most remarkable about Esther is the fact that freedom for her and many others comes in the telling the truth. What? What did this sweet little girl need to tell the truth about?

If we go back earlier in the book, we realize that Esther was not this young woman’s given name. Her real name was Hadassah—a Hebrew word connected to the meaning “darkness.” Esther became her royal name which scholars say is related to the Hebrew verb “to hide.”  Thus, by taking on the name “Esther” she was choosing a life of deceit.  She was hiding her true identity. She was hiding hoping that no one knew where she came from. She was not fully being herself. She was Jewish, a foreigner, not being honest about being an outsider leading the king to believe that she was one of them.

Scholar Amy Oden puts it like this, “Ultimately deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity. Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness, through Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way. Nevertheless, once reveled, the king responds favorably and the Jewish are saved.”

Ah! The story is making more sense here, isn’t it? Esther is a girl who many of us certainly could understand. For we often don’t tell the truth about who we are either. We make up that we were little league champions when we only got a trophy for being on the team. We make up the fact that we were born to a mother who graduated from Harvard, when she only completed Harvard high school. We make up the fact that our boss gave us a promotion last year when what we really mean by last year was 10 years ago. And we say all of these things out of fear!

But, Esther, changed the course of her life. How? She told her truth. “Hey, everyone, this is who I am. I’m Jewish!” And, God blessed it.

And doesn’t this just cut to the heart of what our fear is really all about. We are aren’t truthful in our words, in our actions or in our intentions because we are afraid if people knew us, if they really knew us then, our lives might radically change. We might not be so highly regarded. We might not win this award. We might not advance in our career. We might never find anyone to love us as we hope someone special would.

But, the witness of Esther and the countless other stories we’ve studied together this fall, encourages us all otherwise. Because what has been the common theme throughout this entire series?  We can lay aside ALL our excuses because to God all of them don’t amount to much. We are loved in our questions. We are loved in issues with organized religion. We are loved in our negative impressions of ourselves. We are loved in all our deficiencies. And today, we are loved in our fears, or even when we’re trying to hide the truth. But, instead, we are invited to come out from behind whatever bush or tree we are hiding behind and come into the light of God’s love for us.

Because we need not use the excuse of “I’m afraid” because we don’t have to fear; we just don’t. Freedom comes in just laying ourselves out for God to use, even in spite of ourselves.

So, my friends, what is the story of your life that you need to tell today? What is the secret that you need to bring forth to the light?

Let us simply not be afraid anymore to tell the truth. Esther wasn’t. And we don’t have to be either.


September 23, 2012

I’m Not Smart Enough

Excuses Series: I’m Not Smart Enough–Mark 9:30-37

Have you ever found yourself in a situation or a conversation with someone and have wanted to throw up your hands and say, “This is all just over my head. What you are saying is beyond me!”

Maybe this was a time you were in Algebra in high school and your teacher put up the formula, x+y= ? and pointed to you for an answer. The clueless look on your face said it all. “I’m not smart enough to answer that. Math is just not my thing. Could you ask someone else?”

Maybe it was a time when you moved to a new place—a place where the primary language was not the one you learned since childhood. Someone directs their attention to you, seeking to have a rapid fired conversation and all you can say with the confused look in your eyes, “I’m not smart enough to understand you. Could you please just talk to someone else?”

Maybe it was a time when you found yourself at a dinner party with some well-educated folk. Before too long the conversation goes in the direction of topics or current events to which you know nothing.  When it seems to be your time to contribute, your dazed expression says back to the group, “I’m not smart enough. Could we please just talk about something else?”

In all these situations and countless others that you and I could encounter in a given week, the most human response is silence. We are people who disengage when we don’t understand something.  Our excuse that keeps us from greater depths of relationship or knowledge is simply, “I am not smart enough.”

In the same way, in our gospel lesson for this morning, we encounter a group of Jesus’ disciples who were also fans of using the excuse, “I’m not smart enough” when the cost of discipleship intensified.  They too allow silence to be their response.

And this is the scene: Jesus has just returning from a long trip to Caesarea Philippi has come home to Galilee—Capernaum to be exact, the only place throughout the gospels where Jesus is known to have had a house during his entire three-year ministry.  Jesus’ ministry is climaxing. Like the moment the dramatic music begins to play in the middle of a movie, signaling “now is the time to pay attention” (can you hear it now?) so to was Mark 9’s place in the larger plot.

Jesus knows that his time on earth will so be coming to a close. He needs his disciples to not only to be prepared for all that is to come, but also to see things more clearly.  Previously, Jesus had asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer of “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God” had shaken the foundations of this ministry. But, there was more. This was it (look with me at verse 31): “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days later after being killed, he will rise again.”

And is the case with Jesus, every moment was a teachable experience, every moment was an opportunity to life to life to fullest—to help his followers truly understand what life in the kingdom of God was really like.

But, like a tough Algebra lesson or an over intellectualized dinnertime conversation, verse 32 tell us the disciples’ response, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.”

Jesus, you see, had just let them in on the future and the glory of all that was to come, but what do they do? They SAY NOTHING. Their silence speaks to their excuse of—“We’re not smart enough.”  And by this I mean, not that the disciples had mental or intellectual challenges or disabilities, but that they allowed their own fears of the unknown to keep them from going the next step in their relationship with Jesus.  They held on to the crutch of the excuse of, “Whoa, wait a minute Jesus . . . what you’ve said is just a little too much for us. We just started to love you and commit to follow you for the rest of our lives and now you tell us that you are going to die and then rise again. We just don’t comprehend.”

The problem wasn’t the confusion. It wasn’t even the lack of understanding. It was the ego. It was the disciples being too fearful of what others might have thought of them that they wouldn’t even ask their questions aloud. Fear held them back.

Jesus, I believe, would have had no problem entertaining their questions IF they’d only been courageous enough to say them.

Instead, the disciples opted for another way. They clung to these pristine images of themselves—as the chosen, as the put together ones, as the ones who were of course smart enough to know everything that they already needed to know that they said nothing. They couldn’t dare ask Jesus a question because what if they admitted their doubt, what would this say about them? (Met someone like this in church lately?)

As we keep on reading, it all becomes plain to us. Because when the disciples and Jesus finally got to Capernaum, Jesus takes them aside. “Hey boys, what have you been fusing about with one another on the way?” Though they’d not fess up to it (again there’s silence) scripture tells us that they’d been busy debating who among themselves who was the greatest.

Can stop right here and call out the ego once again?

This band of travelers were so concerned about where they fell in rank, how folks around them sized them up, and how important they seemed in the mix in the end that such sentiments led to an argument.  Their greatest concern was looking bad in front of Jesus.

No wonder then, when Jesus is giving them such a “come be part of my life, my future, and see me for who I really am” kind of moment that thy let the excuse of “I’m not smart enough get in the way.”  For, they were embarrassed to be seen as they really were—scared, confused and clinging to the excuse of not wanting to seem less than.

Because in the end, it didn’t matter, to Jesus how intellectual they were.  Or what they did or did not understand. Rather, it was if they brought their whole selves to God—their doubts, their fears, their questions.  Because if they brought all of this to God Jesus was able. He was able to transform their doubts to faith, their fears to belief, and their questions to life-sustaining peace.

In fact, Jesus takes this conversation one step further—giving the example of including children in worship by calling over a small one in this teachable moment. Jesus declares in verse 37: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Or, in other words—hey, boys, take some lessons from the children.  Maybe you don’t need to worry so much about who is the greatest or where you rank. Just be.

Several weeks ago when Kevin and I were in Africa with Feed The Children, we had as you might imagine countless opportunities to spent time with and observe communities of children. On our first full day in Nairobi, Kevin and I along with the rest of the staff in the US delegation spent time at the Dagoretti Children’s Center—an orphanage run by Feed the Children for those who have been abandoned by their parents. The children, who live there, though faced with great pains of wondering why their parents abandoned them as they grow up, are among the lucky ones. They are fed, clothed, and loved unconditionally by a staff of committed caregivers.  According to the World Food Program statistics, a developing nation like Kenya, one in four children are underweight due to malnourishment. Children under 5, are regularly not feed properly because their families fear these babies won’t make it to their 5th birthday (so why bother to share such valuable resources with them?).

It’s truth to say that children are vulnerable.

But it’s also truth to say that children can be some of our greatest teachers—for they tell us the truth.

So, on the day that Kevin and I were touring the Center, we spent some time playing with the children around the center. However, as Kevin made conversation with his usher for the day called Moses—an elementary school aged boy at the center whom had been assigned as Kevin’s buddy for the event, Kevin asked him what he thought of the food we had for lunch. Kevin thought he was just making conversation with the child, asking what he thought would be a simple question with a simple response of something like, “I like it very much.” But instead, he heard about how slow he felt the kitchen staff were in bringing out the food and wasn’t as good as it used to be, much to the embarrassment of the center director. But children can not be controlled as any parent knows– they say what they feel.  (We later learned that this child only recently started attending American school where he’d grown accustomed to the pace of life being much faster than African standards).

I think this kind of honesty in our vocalizing our thoughts—though it may be shocking to our adult sensibilities is exactly what Jesus was getting at when he encouraged the disciples to welcome the children.

Didn’t Jesus also once say that “whoever finds his life will lose it, but who whoever loses his life for my sake will find it?”

Or in other words—we can’t be people who are so concerned with saving face that we miss out on the peace, the joy, the hope that only Jesus can bring to our souls. We can’t be so concerned with looking stupid by asking questions that we don’t speak up. We can’t be so concerned about what our neighbor in the pew sitting next to us would think if we truly got into the quietness of the prayer time or the hymns that we are kept from worshipping.

Because truly, today’s gospel lesson asks us how it is that we are going to deal with the big questions of life. Are we going to be held back by our egos? Or are we going to tell the truth about what we think, where we are, what we hope for and what we most need?  And if we are going to do this, we have to start asking some better questions–

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers and spiritual teachers says: “Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.”

So, what about you today—are you going to be silent? Are you going to shuffle around trying to find your rank among your peers—hoping that you are the top of the list, the greatest if you will?

Or are you going to trust in Jesus to work out what you can’t—what you can’t understand, what you do not know (and may never know)? Are you going to speak up and as God the big questions when you need to?

Questions like: why do children suffer in this world? Why do good things never seem to happen to me? Why doesn’t my husband seem to love me anymore? Why can’t I seem to find a good job? Why do I not feel your presence, God when I pray?  Why can’t you make my wife, God, come to church with me? Faith, I just don’t understand how you get it, God! And the list could go on and on.  God can take our questions—any of them—there’s no shame in simply asking!

Today, let our excuse of “I’m not smart enough or I’m don’t understand” not hold us back any longer to the relationship that our Lord has for us today and for all the days to come.


September 22, 2012

A Poem for Today

I was having a conversation with a friend this afternoon and we were talking about our favorite poetry … As the conversation lingered we came to some points of consensus. We both cold mot live without poetry. And moreover, sometimes, especially in the darkest periods of our lives we are drawn in particular to poems. Poems express emotions that there are no words for. When we don’t feel like reading, there are always the gifts of these kind of metaphors. Poetry feeds our souls in these moments in ways nothing else can.

I think there is a Mary Oliver poem for every occasion and for today this is mine. Thank goodness for this gem. I have to be no less than what I am. This is enough. I am enough.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver


September 19, 2012

Shameless Promotion for Friends

In my journey toward becoming an author, I’ve found it important to build community with other writers. Not only because these are the type of folks whom I really want to read my own work (because they provide such helpful feedback), but for the sake of having encouragers for the journey. Other writers, for me, really do know what makes me tick in ways others don’t. I am spurred on by their love of our shared craft.

Several months ago now, I was invited to join a group of fellow Writing Revs who live in the DC region. This group meets a couple of times a month to read each other’s stuff and talk about writing. Of course, I was intimidated at first, but after spending a week at Collegeville Institute last summer, I knew it would be good for me. And, I’d have to just get over any insecurities I might have. I’d experienced the gift (and the terror too) of a writing workshop for the first time. And, while it is incredibly vulnerable to put yourself out there like that– “Here, be the first eyes to my  work. Tell me what you think”– I learned my readers would thank me later.  And, it has been fun to regular meet with other pastors who feel the same way.

Two of the group members of this Writing Rev group are soon to publish their first book. Excitement has been all the buzz with us lately and I couldn’t help but take this opportunity for a shameless promotion for these friends. The church needs thoughtful thinkers and MaryAnn and Ruth are two bright lights with some really great stuff to say on Sabbath and pilgrimage. I’ve read their books and I’m thrilled about you reading them too.

Sabbath in the Subburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben Dana is available for pre-release on Amazon right now. It officially comes out on September 30th.

Books on Sabbath are easier to find these days. For, slowing down, stopping and finding ways to get out of the rat race seems to be a topic that we all want to talk about. But how many of us actually do it? This book is a journey alongside a family with two working parents, three kids in a very overcommited region of the country to find such rest on a weekly basis.  You’ll find thoughtful theological reflections over the course of this family’s year-long journey with practical ideas about how they put their faith into practice.

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land by Ruth Everhart is also available for pre-order right now. It comes out on November 30th.

Many pastors or other serious faith seekers come to the Holy Land in search of something. But what happens when such an adventure begins to shake the foundations of your faith? What happens when you begin to see the life experiences of others in a way that you didn’t expect? What happens when you wrestle with such deep life questions that you come home from the Holy Land with new vision for the world? Ruth explores these questions and more as she takes you a long for the journey that she a several colleagues made to Israel several years ago. Join her for the spiritual journey.

Both books will ready and available for spring study groups of all kinds. Order yours today and support these wonderful writing Rev friends of mine! You can thank me later.

September 17, 2012

When Times Are Good, When Times Are Bad

It’s always the little things, isn’t it that stick with us through life? It’s usually not the grand gestures or the extravagant moments, but the whispers. The experiences that are engraved in our memory and won’t let us go, even if we tried. Many call this the beginning of grace.

A gem like this has stuck close to me since high school– though it was not taught to me by any teacher or shared with me by any friend. In fact, it’s crazy that I remember it at all.  It came from a banner hanging in my school hallway.

From 7th grade on my parents sent me to a Christian school about a 30 minute drive from our home in downtown. They were concerned about the quality of education I’d receive from the public high school assigned to me and they felt really great about academic and social opportunities available for me at this place. My grandparents were even kind enough to help out with the tuition. Small class sizes, individualized attention and loads of spiritual formation was a part of everything I experienced here. Though I wish now that my teenaged years had been full of more racial, religious and socio-economic diversity, I am thankful for the spiritual foundation for my time at the Christian school gave me (basic Bible classes in seminary were much easier from all the preparation!).

In line with this value system, each year, the senior class would select a class verse and class hymn to be read and sung at graduation. Then later, each class’ verse of scripture would be sown into a banner and placed along the walls above the lockers. The banners were usually all quite large and colorful. You could hardly walk down the halls without noticing them.

Though I have no memory of my particular class verse was, I do remember one. This banner hung directly across from the door I walked into every morning next to the principal’s office. As I gathered my wits together to keep going through school each early morning, I read it daily and was memorized:

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. Ecclesiastes 7:14

It never made much sense to me, especially the ending. “Man (or woman) cannot discover anything about at his future?” Such a sentiment seemed to go against everything I thought I knew about God at the time. Growing up in a fundamental driven household, I believed that I grew up to do the right things at the right times, then my life would be free of trouble. The only people I thought at the time who experienced trouble were those who went against God’s plans for their life. (And, with my “I’m spiritual” hat on I knew I wasn’t one of them).

But, as I’ve grown up and heard the words, “when times are good . . . when times are bad” in the back of my head, this verse of scripture has equally made more sense to me and frustrated me all the same.

No matter how good you are or not, life interrupts. Plans you once betted your life on are quickly destroyed. People whom you thought would be in your life forever simple do not have the breath to climb the mountains with you.  Grief comes. Sadness comes. The unexplained comes. Life makes absolutely no sense. We cannot have a specific 30 year life plan and even dare to think it will come true. We just don’t know. And, it’s frustrating. Many of us truly wish for life to simply be more lineal and fair.  And it isn’t. It never will be.

But, this does not take from us the moments– the pure and beautiful moments of our journey. Which is what I think this verse is all about.

When life is good, let’s rejoice, but when it bad, let’s remember that each experience of life can be just a season. Life’s joys, even as tainted as they may be by past losses, will return. Joy comes in the morning . . . (even if we have to wade through the night for years and years and years).

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard countless stories from friends and colleagues about this dichotomy of life.

Some parents’ children have died much too young from rare diseases. While other parents’ children have soared into a new school year– making their first goal at soccer matches and getting their first 100% on Spelling Tests. Some parents have cried new deep rivers of tears. Other parents have smiled for so long they thought their mouths would burst.

Some marriages have ended in bitter word wars over financial issues. While other marriages have only just begun with cakes, glamour photos and gleeful expectations based on promises for a long future. Some have entered new dark seasons of self-doubt and life crushing agony. Other folks have soared to high once in a lifetime emotional peeks.

Some long-term partnerships have ended because of the death of one from an unsuccessful battle with cancer. While other partnerships have soared with the expectations of new shared dreams and common goals. Some have cried tears they never expected to ever leak. Other folks have simultaneously said to themselves, “I didn’t know that life could be this wonderful.”

This is the mystery of life. Or as my friend Leslie said the a couple of days ago on Facebook, “On any given “best” day, someone, somewhere, is having their worst day.  I guess that’s the deal.  Please God, give us strength when we need it.”

I’m glad for the ever-present reminder of this wisdom as I long for the day when we are all made whole.

September 17, 2012

I’m a Defect

Mark 7:24-30

As our series of messages continues about the excuses we can offer God, today’s excuse is hits to the heart of what we really think about ourselves. We say that God can’t use us or do anything meaningful with our lives because in some way we think we’re defective.

We reject the callings of God upon our lives because we simple think we’re not fit for the task. We look around us and see countless others of us who seem to jump farther, run faster, or fly higher with their gifts or talents than we could ever dream of being. We compare ourselves to those who appear to have their life in order with what our culture deems as praiseworthy accomplishments. We focus our thoughts on what we can’t do a lot more often than on what we can.

Our excuse goes back to the heart of believing that something is wrong with us. God doesn’t love us much as the rest.

I met a woman a few years ago. She sat in my office in tears. It looked as if she’d gathered up all the strength and energy she could muster up just to come and talk to me. I have something to tell you, she said, as she blurred out, “I’m gay. I wish I weren’t. I prayed and prayed, pastor that God would take way this part of me, but nothing has changed. I wish I could just be like everyone else in my family—meet man to marry, grow up and have grandbabies to make my mom happy, but I can’t. Why did God make me a defect?”

As I handed this sobbing woman Kleenex and sought to be as kind of presence as possible to hear the rest of the story and the mounds of spiritual, emotional and even physical pain she brought to my couch, I couldn’t help but wonder how her life might change if she left behind the “God doesn’t love me because I’m a defect” label.  How was this one excuse keeping her from the abundant life that God had already prepared for her?

It’s a tough road in life, isn’t it when you think that God doesn’t love you because you are defective?

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we meet a woman whom many in her day and time would have called defective.

She could have given every excuse imaginable and had every reason to think in God’s eyes something was wrong with her. But, instead, scripture tells us that she charted a life course of not letting anything stop her from seeking out the Lord. Even when Jesus was rude to her . . . but I’m getting to ahead of myself here. Let’s stick to finding out what we know about the woman first.

Mark’s Gospel does not tell us her name. All we know about “this woman” is that she hails from the region of Tyre, a region outside of Galilee (where Jesus spent most of his ministry), an urban center, a coastal town. It was not a place where many in the Jewish community were known to live.  It was Gentile country for sure.

And so besides the woman not being the typical type of person that Jesus had previously hung around in Mark’s gospel, we also know about her that she’s a mother.  She may or may not have been married. If she wasn’t married, life would have been one economic hardship after another for her. Why? Because not just any mother, but a mother with a daughter who suffered with a demon . . . When our modern ears read this, we might be immediately alarmed—a demon?  Possessed by a demon, what’s that? Well, considering that in ancient times, any sort of unexplained mental health issues or unexplained seizures, for example, would be automatically label the person as demonic and most certainly defective. This girl would not have had friends. She would not have had anyone to play with her. She probably would not have attended school. And, as a mother with a daughter with a “demon” she was an outcast herself.  How could she make anything of her life either with this suffering child and a stigma placed over her home?

And to this prominent Gentile town which was known to have issues with the politics of Jerusalem for centuries, Jesus, encountered this woman alone. No mention is made of the disciples accompanying him on this trip— a trip which many Biblical scholars feel was an attempt on Jesus’ part of some vacation rest. But as was typical with Jesus’ three year ministry—he didn’t get a lot of rest. The crowds followed him wherever he went, even if he said: “Don’t tell anyone where I am.” The neediest always seemed to find him.

This woman approaches Jesus. The woman hears that Jesus is in town and drops all of her plans to come and see him. All excuses of “I’m defective, my family is defective” were put aside. She was the original pushy momma, without any shame of asking for what most wanted. And she sensed Jesus had just what she was looking for—healing.

And this was her request. Look with me at verse 26, “She begged [Jesus] to cast the demon out of her daughter.” Plain a simple right? It wasn’t like Jesus had never been asked to do this before. Remember the man he encountered early on in his hometown—the man possessed by the demon who he healed, to the sending the demons into the herd of pigs?

But Jesus was on vacation. He was tired. He wanted a break. He needed to regain mental focus. And someone else needs his help. Sigh.

Jesus’ response might have shocked you as it did me in verse 27, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What?? Jesus just compared this woman’s child to a dog? This is not the sweet and loving Jesus that you and I know and love. What exactly might he mean?

Of course, such has been a topic of Biblical scholarships for the ages. Did Jesus really mean “a dog” or was he simply saying something much sweeter like a “puppy?” Did Jesus plan on healing her all along and just say such a harsh remark to see how she responded? Or did Jesus have his mind changed by a persistent woman?

We’d have a lot of studying together to explore each option but for now, this is where I want to take our conversation:  Jesus didn’t intend on healing her, but his mind was changed.

Though it might cause us to shake a little in our pews this morning, I have to think that this was a moment when Jesus grew up just a little more, was forced to reconsider some of his ideas about God’s mission for this life, and God revealed through Jesus that life in the kingdom of God was truly more than it first seemed.

Consider this, when Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs,” what he was referring to, I believe, was the relationship between Israel and the rest of the known world at the time—those who weren’t Jewish. Previous to the encounter Jesus had with this woman; his ministry had primarily focused on the mission to call out those within Israel to understand their relationship with God in a different way. But, now, was Jesus in Tyre—and someone whom was not a person included in that group was asking for his help.

So the question before Jesus was what was he going to do about it?

We know the woman fires back to Jesus’ comment by saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” which is another way of saying, “I know I’m a Gentile. I know my city is not known to love your people. But I believe you can help me. I’ll take even a crumb of your help because I believe.”

Do you hear any sense of “I’m defective” in her words?

I don’t. She reasons with Jesus with the words in which he spoke to her first—and helps him understand that she believes she is worthy of his help and will take nothing but what he can offer.

And what is the response? Jesus tells the woman to go home and find her daughter healed.  The ill daughter is ill no more and Jesus sees before his eyes the movement of the kingdom of God on earth through him. Sooner than he imagined—the witness of his ministry becomes an inclusive statement of God’s love for all people. Jews and Gentiles alike. Men and women alike. The well and the sick alike. The children. The old people. The in between people. All people.

But, I dare say, we’ve wouldn’t have known or seen any of this if it weren’t for the courage of the woman who was bold enough to make her request known, who was courageous enough to be fully herself, even if others laughed. And, most of all was willing to pled with the Lord to consider her and have mercy on her beloved daughter.

If you watched the Olympics like I did weeks ago—you might have found yourself mesmerized by the unlikely track and field competitor, Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius, an athlete representing South Africa— had every reason to not be there. He had every reason to think he was defective.

Oscar, was born with congenital absence of the fibula in both legs. When he was 11 months old, his legs were amputated halfway between his knees and ankles.Thus before Oscar even had the opportunity to learn to walk, like his peers, this opportunity was taken from him by the sheer bad luck of genetics.

However, being a natural athlete, loving to play and be outdoors, Oscar first learned to do what the other kids could naturally do, adapting, even without legs. He began playing water polo in grade school. After later being fitted with prosthetic legs, he took up other sports like tennis and rugby too.  Eventually when he was fitted with even more advanced prosthetics, he took up track as well.

But, Oscar’s dreams were bigger than just being on the field. He set his sights on the greatest athletic scene in the world—the Olympic Games as a runner. Oscar took part in the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens and came third overall  100-meter event. Despite falling in the preliminary round for the 200 meters, he qualified for the final. He went on to win the final with a world record time of beating American runners with a single amputation (remember he had two!). And Oscar continued to have success like this—blowing away the competition at future Paralympic events.  So much so that when wanted to take it one step even farther. Oscar set his mind on competing against completely able-bodied athletes.

Everyone told him he was crazy. He should stay competing with those most like him. But, Oscar did not think was as defective as others labeled him. He was not disabled. He was abled.

And even though his attempts to apply for and enter the 2008 Olympic Games failed as the controversy over his prosthetic legs ensued, Oscar kept going. He was persistent.  Just a month ago, Oscar became the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics truly fulfilling his nickname,“the fastest man without legs.” He was chosen to carry the South African flag at the closing ceremonies.

Excuses, excuses, you and I have a lot of them throughout our lives about why God can’t use us, why God doesn’t love us. But if we take our cues from courageous ones like the woman with the sick daughter and stories of those like Oscar Pistorius, we remember that our excuses are just that—excuses. They don’t get us anywhere. They don’t get us anything. They don’t amount to much. Because if we are persistent, because if we are bold, and because if we keep talking to our Creator about what we need, there’s always hope.

There’s always hope because in the kingdom of God, just as Jesus’ ministry began to show at this juncture—no one is left out. No one is called defective. And no one gets to sit on the sidelines thinking this experience called living abundant life is not for them.

There’s an old hymn that I bet many of you have sung before—“Just as I am” made famous by how much Billy Graham like to have its verses played over and over and over and over again at his evangelistic crusades. It’s a hymn I personally associate with the practice of emotional manipulation, which I despise by pastors. I don’t usually like to sing it in church anymore.

But nonetheless, this hymn was written by a woman by the name of Charlotte Elliot, who too knew the pain of feeling like a defect. The story goes that the composed the words of this hymn after waking up in the middle of the night with a dreadful dream. She was in charge of a bizarre at her church the next day and the anxiety of her dysfunction came over her like a ton of bricks. She said to herself, why do I even try to serve? It’s useless. I’m no good for God. But the Spirit came to her, encouraged her and reminded her of her relationship with God and salvation.

“Just as I Am” became her testimony of no matter how wretched she felt about herself, Jesus felt otherwise. For God loved her, just as she was. She didn’t have to be afraid anymore. Her life had great hope!

Today, I give you a God who says the same thing to you. You are loved. You are treasured. You are not defective. So let the excuses cease. Come home just as you are as together we sing, just as we are.


September 12, 2012

Fall Excitement on the Plaza

Last Wednesday night, Washington Plaza began a joint fall effort with our friends at Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church just down the street in Reston. We’re doing Bible Study together for the next 12 weeks.

MLK Church and WPBC are no strangers to one another. We’ve been friends for a while now. I count Rev. Jean Robinson-Casey one of my dearest clergy colleagues. Over the course of the past two years, we’ve shared a special Diversity service together, Good Friday services, a Maundy Thursday service and one Sunday morning joint worship service where I was asked to preach for MLK’s 30th anniversary (with a joint lunch together to follow).

But as is the case with all kinds of friendships, there comes a time when you have to take things to the next level. If you are going to be friends, you really have to be friends, not just in words but in actions. Rev. Casey and I both agreed that a joint Bible study on Wednesday nights this fall was just the right next step. Our fellowship and learning would be sweeter, we knew. Rev. Casey and I dreamed together one afternoon over lunch about what we might like to study and how our coming together could bless both of our congregations. We’d study, Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. And, let the Spirit lead us into the rest.

Last Wednesday night, we had a great kick-off to this joint venture! The sweetness that always seems to be there when both churches gather shone through. It seems no profound to say it was fun, but it truly was! We laughed and shared stories with one another. It felt to me, as it always seems to feel when we gather that “This is how church should be!” MLK folks came over to WPBC’s sanctuary and I led the discussion. Tonight, we’ll go to MLK’s building and Rev. Casey will lead us.

The sky’s the limit to see how God continues to lead our friendship as we grow together in study this fall! I’m one happy pastor to be along for the ride.

September 10, 2012

I’ve Made an Unforgivable Mistake . . .

I’ve Made an Unforgivable Mistake . . . Psalm 51: 1-12

Besides the common saying that “there are two things that you can be certain of in life death and taxes” I would add two more things. You can be certain that human beings will do stupid things from time to time and also not want to admit that they’ve done so.

(This would never happen to anyone in this room, of course).

When I talk today about “making an unforgivable mistake” what I mean by this is more than just forgetting to take out the trash when your spouse asks you to, or leaving your child at daycare too long, or even forgetting to pay your mortgage one month but a point in your life when everything hits a bottom.  A point when the consequences of your actions loom like a dark, dark cloud over your head. And, in such moments of crisis, we have several choices.

When we make such huge mistakes, one choice we have is to lie.

A lawyer friend of Kevin’s and mine practices Fairfax County. He recently told me about a case that came to his attention at his firm.

Two friends were going out for drinks one Friday night and went a little overboard. Instead of calling a cab or another friend to take them home, the two friends got in the car and decided to find their way home. When they began to swerve all over the place and soon found those flashing blue lights behind them, the two men made their choice. They played fruit basket turn over in the car with the passenger coming to the backseat and the driver coming to the passenger side. They curled themselves into a ball like children and pretended to be asleep.

When the officers came to ask who was driving the car, both gentlemen had blank looks on their faces as if aliens had driven them to the side of the road. Neither of them would admit they drove or knew who drove the car, even when they were handcuffed and taken to the station for questioning. It seemed that lying was just easier than telling the truth.

Or, when we make mistakes, we also have the choice to blame other people or influences.

A famous poet once said: “You can smile when all goes wrong and you have someone else to blame.”

I don’t know when is the last time you’ve been in a room with children, but when you are, you’ll probably notice children are more sophisticated than you think at the blame game.

When you get a group of them together and ask, “Who make a mess of the toys? Or, who spit on the floor? Or, who bit the girl sitting in the corner crying?” You probably won’t get a straight answer right away. Even before children and utter complete sentences many of them learn the game of pointing fingers at others. “She did it.” “No, she did it.” “No, he did it.” From the mouths of babes through our adult life, blaming other people is just easier than taking responsibility for our own actions.

Or, when we made mistakes, we also have the choice to simply hide, avoiding all consequences put together.

You only need to read a newspaper to check the headlines on CNN to see this scenario played out in a modern context. Especially for those in positions of leadership and/or power, it is a whole lot easier to use your influence to avoid consequences than it is to be full of integrity.

Names like John Edwards, Tiger Woods or even Arnold Schwarzenegger probably bring to our minds stories of scandals gone wrong—simply because these men decided to spend more time covering up the truth instead of facing it.

In our Old Testament reading for the day, we find the poetic work of the great king of Israel, David. A guy who not only lied, blamed others, but also hid when it was discovered he had messed up big time.

My hope is that as we examine this passage today we will look both at the truth our human condition but also that we would find great hope our God whose mercy is never-failing when we think we’ve made an unforgivable mistake.

To get the whole story about Psalm 51, we have to go back to 2 Samuel to learn that David wrote this when all was going wrong for him. Things were especially bad for David because no one, you see, really ever expected him to many any mistakes. He was the golden boy of his generation. He grew to be the man young women swooned over and older women said, “Isn’t he the cutest?” He was seemingly the perfect answer to Israel’s crisis of leadership.

Though his predecessor, Saul had tried to lead the kingdom of Israel both in God’s ways and in defeat of their enemies, his personal jealousies among many other things meant he was unsuccessful. When David came on to the scene, we know had great success over his enemies right away.

The saying went Saul slayed thousands of enemies but David killed ten thousands making David, even more popular because peace started to come to the land. And, even the Lord sang his praise calling him “A man after God’s own heart.” I can imagine how easy it was for David to begin to believe his own press.

But, then there was this beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop. (Now, you and I know about this as a sweet children’s Sunday school lesson. But if we are to read it as adults we know that the tale goes from G rated to for adults only).

Bathsheba was bathing and David. Bathsheba’s husband out-of-town, so David just could not help himself. Even though he could have had any available woman in the kingdom and already had several wives in his household, greed and lust got the best of David. He has an affair with Bathsheba.

When David got word that Bathsheba was now carrying his child, he makes a plan whereby Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah is sent from war so that the child could be thought to be his. Yet, when Uriah refuses to lie with his wife on his furlough from war, David makes sure that this little problem will be disposed of quickly and quietly. David sends Uriah’s troops to the dangerous front lines and soon he’s dead. Pregnant Bathsheba now moves into the palace with David and has his son.

While the cover-up seemed to work and from the outside everything seems ok, all was wrong with David life at this point.

Everything was about to catch up with him too. The man after God’s own heart had committed adultery and ordered the murder of an innocent person. He was hiding his wrongdoing.

David should have known that something was up after Nathan, the great prophet of the country, shows up at his doorstep, but he doesn’t say a word. It takes a convicting story and a truth in your face kind of accusation from Samuel: “You are the man!” before David begins to own up to what has occurred.

Yet the beauty of this David’s response in 2 Samuel 12:3: “I have sinned against the LORD.” David does something that few in our society do when all goes awry in front of their eyes. He says he was wrong. He says he messed up. He stops all rounds on the blame game and he confesses not only these things but that he has sinned against the Lord.

But had David made THE unforgivable mistake? Adulterer, murderer, liar, coveting his neighbor’s wife? You name it, he could easily have been judged by the three strikes and you are out rule of our modern US justice system. To many at onlookers in David’s time, they could have easily said, “Well, get the furnace ready. . . for we know that David guy is going to burn, burn, burn in hell for eternity.”

This leads us to the bigger question of are their unforgivable mistakes?

Well, let’s stick close with what David does after he comes back to his senses of reality. David turns to the Lord. David realizes that yes, he’d done things that had hurt his family, Bathsheba’s family and even his nation, but above claiming that he done wrong against God.

Look with me at chapter 51, verse four: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” You see, David wasn’t trying to do anything to get out of his mess other than recognizing he deserved any punishment he might receive. David was acknowledging that “sin is a problem concerning God and his relation with us. Not anyone else.”

Because of this, David’s confession turns attention back to God.  He recognizes that any real help he could have comes from God. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whither than snow.” In admitting wrongdoing, David says his future lies in the hands of God.

And what David was asking for was not the self-deprecating type of confession “I’m such an awful person there’s no way that God can forgive me” BUT an invitation for God to come into his life and in a new way.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (10).

David asks for God to bring into existence in him what was not there before. To, create in him a different outlook. We know this as he’s chosen the same Hebrew verb that was used to describe the creation of the world in Genesis 1. David desires a new creation in his very being.

Yet, in the end, I believe this Psalm becomes more about God and God’s character than it ever was about David anyway.

Psalm 51 shows us the mercy of God at a level that is mind-boggling to most of us.

David’s sin was forgiven (he was allowed to remain on as king of Israel, and even have another child with Bathsheba after the first one dies who eventually became king Solomon!). It’s amazing isn’t it?

In a culture of logical thinkers, it is hard to believe that God would love us, as he did with David when we make such a mess of our lives sometimes.

It is hard to believe that God loves us unconditionally and can give us clean hands and a pure heart again when we ask because such a love is nothing like we experience even in our best of human relationships.

It is hard to believe the hiding, the lying, and blaming others way of doing things could be exchanged for a better way of being just as we are by a God who longs to create something new in us.

It is hard to believe that our God can make the crushed bones in us rejoice afresh, for such type of hope is not what we see readily in our society today. Such a hope rarely exists.

But, yet, the message of Psalm 51 reminds all of us again today that such unbelievable statements are actually true.

Though you might be sitting in your pew thinking this morning, “I’ve not murdered anyone this week or committed such life altering event such as adultery…. (which I applaud as a pastor) so what is in this text for me?”

I offer you this morning that this text speaks to all of us who in some way or another are wandering around in the messes of our own making.

When we truly get honest with who we are—I know that all of us have some “thing” in the back of our minds that we believe God doesn’t like about us or an act done to us that continues to bring us shame, even years after the act has passed.

But let the excuses cease! Let me be your messenger this morning to remind you that we ALL are offered the opportunity of restoration. Today, we are given this stop of the journey to confess the ways we’ve fallen short of the mark of God’s best for us knowing that as we cry to God: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” that God will do just this.

If you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve made a really big mistake, or if you’ve made a really, really big and unforgivable mistake, I give to you today a God who lovingly desires to keep relationship with you intact, no matter what. Those you hurt may or may not forgive you, understand you, or work on reconciliation with you. Yet this fact remains: you are loved even still. I give you a God today who longs to re-create a clean spirit in you— so that you are whiter, whiter than snow for now and forevermore.


September 8, 2012

Communion with Cake

It’s always fun in my clergy circles to share stories about creative ways we’ve officiated and served communion. Especially during service trip experiences when the normal supplies are are rare to find, I’ve known colleagues who have served communion with elements like sweet tea, Cheetos or cinnamon rolls. I’ve even known colleagues who have even used chocolate wine when a red wine can’t be found.

The theology of switching up the elements from the traditional bread and wine (or grape juice) can be frowned upon or celebrated depending on who you talk to. It has been said that communion in the Protestant tradition is really about a shared meal, a common cup, and a collective community so what does it matter what you actually eat or drink? However, personally, I tend to be more traditional in my approach– bread and wine work just fine for me. Yet I understand why changing the approach isn’t so bad every now and then. It is easy for us to get caught going through the motions of hearing: “This is my body broken for you” and “This is my blood shed for you” that we forget the spiritual significance of what we are doing in the first place.

Two weeks ago now, when Kevin and I first arrived in Kenya and began spending time with the staff (all 220+ of them) gathered at the children’s center for a day of installation and celebration of Kevin as the new President of Feed The Children International, of course we ate together. It was like Christmas in August, we learned as we shared a meal of chicken, greens, rice,salads, arrow root, bread, potatoes and soda. It was the finest traditional feast they could offer.

But no festive gathering like this one we learned would be complete without a cake. A special cake for the occasion was prepared for us. And a cake cutting ceremony was in order. Kevin and I were invited to the cake cutting table in front of everyone as the community choir sang. Though Kevin and it felt a lot like our wedding (as they later made us feed each other while everyone took pictures . . a quite funny site! And, no I didn’t smear it on Kevin’s face), learning about the meaning behind the whole event made it all worth it.

Esther, the director of school feeding programs and the MC for the day, passionately explained to all of us, why we were cutting the cake. She said something like this:

If you think about the parts that go into making a cake . . . The eggs, the flour, the sugar, the water, etc you realize that none of these elements are very good if at all on their own. But when you mix them together, adding just the right amounts (and no more than is needed), you get a sweet dessert. You get something that tastes good that all people can enjoy.

In the same way, all of us today are a part of a larger family. We who are many believe that our fellowship is better and sweeter when it is shared. Let this cake today be a participation for you in knowing that each of us is part of a larger family. And when we come together in just the right way, our community and love shared among us is what we call the best life has to offer.

Then, Kevin and I (along with the two other US based FTC staff) were asked to take the plates of little chunks of cake on a plate and pass them out individually to the staff and children as they gathered in a semicircle around us. Simultaneously, everyone continued to enjoy their Sprite, Fanta and Pespi.

If this was not a communion like act, I don’t know what is!

As I served the cake from my hand to their napkin, chills ran down my spine and I caught myself saying “the peace of the Lord be with you” on several occasions though no one asked me to do so. It felt to me so much like what I do with my own congregation each Sunday when I give them the elements through hand to hand contact, looking them in the eyes and wishing blessing each participant. In the giving and receiving of the elements as a gathered community, we remember in gratitude the one who gave of his very life for us all.

While the traditions of the church and the communion liturgies that we’ve passed down from generation to generation are dear treasures in our spiritual lives, I believe, we can’t help but keep looking for God’s ongoing teachable moments for us. For sometimes the bread of Christ just might come to us in white coconut iced cakes and His cup to us in glass soda bottles. And as we partake, we’ll remember the expansive beauty in the Body of our Lord. And taste for ourselves that life in Christian community is very good.




September 7, 2012

Who Is Really Poor?

As I’ve been back in the US this week and have been processing the trip Kevin and I shared to Malawi and Kenya last week, one of the questions/ comments I’ve heard a lot is: “Aren’t you so glad to be back? I’m sure the poverty was heartbreaking over there. You must be so relieved to be at home again so that you can get back to ‘normal’ life.”

I mean no offence to any of the wonderful people in my life here, but I really do want to say “no”.  I haven’t been relieved to be at home.  In fact, I’m grieving the passing of the experiences of last week. With many tears, Kevin and I were quite sad to leave. The work we participated in– such as serving lunch to school children in the slums (see picture) was so special. It’s the purest and most wonderful parts of this kind of work.

And while yes, there are so many perks to life in the US— water from the sink that is safe to drink, constant source of power to your home without daily interruptions, warmth and water pressure in your daily shower, well-constructed roads and city planning that makes getting from place to place easy, etc, etc—I really want to convey that being in the US is not always the end all existence. We aren’t as rich as we might think.

And this is what I know: I feel our journey took us from two rich countries to come home to a poor one.

For the true be told, when we begin to life with less as Kevin and I did last week, we realize we need less. When we converse face to face, those whom we thought we came to serve become our teachers. When we relax and enjoy life, laughter springs up even in the slums.

It’s obvious what you might be thinking. All the world statistics of East Africa tell a story of scarcity of resources. Access to clean and safe drinking water is rationed –  if present in some communities at all. Mothers die unnecessarily during childbirth. Fathers die too soon of preventable diseases. If children live to their 5th birthday, families are overwhelmed in amazement. The number of inequalities in this land are unfathomable. Cycles of poverty seem too strong to even imagine being broken (even if all the NGOs and government agencies actually worked together).

But, even with this true, there’s another story at work. And it’s a story not of poverty, but of abundance. As we spent time with the Malawians and the Kenyans, this is the richness I saw:

People share.

Smiles are warm and heartfelt.

Time is unhurried.

Simple pleasures like breaks for tea and coffee are honored.

Food is savored, not devoured.

Leftovers of all kinds are not put to waste.

Help given is received with overflowing gratitude.

Sitting from my position of privilege, it’s not that I want to overspiritualize poverty.  Rather, I want to say that in the US, I believe it is so easy to become distracted by our blessings.  We not only take them for granted, but we become consumed with them to the point of forgetting from where they came.  We forget the responsibility that comes from such great gifts. We forget to be people of blessing instead of just people with blessings.

As I continue to stick close to what my spiritual teachers taught me last week, I hope you’ll join me in thanksgiving for the great paradox of the gospel.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is more blessed to give than to receive. And, blessed are the hungry, for they will be filled.

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