Posts tagged ‘faith’

January 13, 2014

Vine and Branches

Jesus said, “I am the vine you are the branches if you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.”

I’m sure I learned this verse from the gospel of John back in my Sunday School days as a child. It’s a great verse to go along with plant crafts and potting soil. It looks good printed on a church magnet. After you’ve heard these words for a long time, it’s easy to skim over  and not see the depth.

So for years, I think had no idea what John 15 was all about. Maybe I still don’t, but here are some of my latest hunches at least some to offer the blog today:

If I say I am a follower of Jesus, I am not in control of my life. I am simply connected to a larger story that I am graced to play a part in. 

How many times in life– daily if not weekly do you and I get ahead of ourselves with the planning of our futures? This is one of my favorite games I play in my head.

We think things like, “Well, if I applied and then got this new job, then I’ll need to move to this community. And if I moved to this community, I’d need buy a more reliable car. And if I go shopping for a more reliable car then I might not be able to buy what I want because my credit score isn’t high enough. Maybe I should pay down more of this credit card and . . . ” It’s an endless cycle of worry. And “what if” questions that have no concrete answers.

We plan and we plan and we plan some more– as if we are the ones running the show. But the thing is– we are not. Not at all.

If we say we are a follower of Jesus, then we are branches of the vine of Christ. We can only know our future as much as the vine directs us to grow. Nothing more.

Even if we pray everyday. Even if we pled Jesus for answers every day. Even if we went to seminary for goodness sake. We are the branches. Just the branches. A part from the vine we can do nothing. Such sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Especially to overachiever types like me. “Really, nothing?” I want to fire back. But over the past couple of years, even with all of the degrees to my name, etc. I have come to believe that anything worth doing comes as I am connected to the Spirit.

Another hunch I’ve been thinking about is that remaining or abiding (as some translations put it) in Christ is crucial to my relationship with myself and my community. 

If I want to have a life that moves in the direction of a future that is life-giving, joy-filled and gifted with hope in even during the darkest of seasons, then I must stay put until the Spirit moves. Not until then.

It means that I can’t know what kind of plant I might be a week, a month or years from now.

It means that any efforts I make to get ahead of the other branches around me will simply do no good– for to separate myself from others grafted to the same vine is to essentially leave the faith altogether. I am not a singular entity.

I recently heard an interview with Robin Roberts, the Good Morning America co-anchor. If you’ve followed her story at all, you know that she’s been through a hell of journey concerning her health over the past couple of years. Just when she thought she was in remission from breast cancer, she was diagnosed with a blood disease requiring a blood transfusion. Reports are that her recovery is on an upward trend. So many people have been in awe of her perseverance. I was struck by her comments to a reporter when she said: “If you are depressed,  you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If  you are at peace, you are living in the present.’ At this moment I am at peace and filled with joy and gratitude. I am grateful to God, my doctors and nurses for my restored good health.”

This is what I believe living on the vine is all about. Not in the past, not in the future but in the moment of here and now of who exactly is around us (not who we want to be around us).

I’ve had moments in the past couple of months when I’ve caught myself with a mind filled with a tornado of worry. I’ve been obsessed with either the past or the future. And neither of these trains of thought have done me any good. And it has been these words of Jesus have shuck me up and set my feet on more stable ground again.

Jesus is the vine. I am the branches. If I remain in Christ, I will bear much fruit.

November 21, 2013

Well, Hello Again: Africa

photoMy travels on behalf of Feed The Children this week have taken Kevin and I back to the continent of Africa.

It’s been over a year since we last stood on this land.

It has been a year when our hearts have grown in courage– for all that a responsibility for such a time as this.

It has been a year when our minds have grown in compassion– for our shared partnership with our friends and co-laborers in these countries.

It has been a year when our knees have more met the ground in prayer– for all the injustices that seek to destroy the good that is possible.

As my jet legged feet took its first steps off the plane yesterday, I felt the enormity of all that this visit could mean wash over me.

We. Are. Here. Again.

My first words upon seeing the rolling hills and the sea of dark faces and the distinct smells were simply, “Wow. I’m glad to be home.” Yes, home.

There’s something about the continent of Africa that has always drawn me in, re-shaped my thinking and then set me on my way in new paths of service. I’ve always felt welcomed here in ways I haven’t in other places. I’ve always welcomed any opportunity to visit.

As I pondered all of these things on the plane, I found myself making a list of the previous visits. And as I penned the dates and countries seen on the previous 3 trips, I couldn’t help but notice that my life changed EVERY SINGLE TIME I set foot here.

After a 1998 visit, I came home disillusioned about the term “missionary” vowing I’d never be one. While an incredibly painful experience (because of Americans I met here, I must add), I ultimately believe it was the experience that set the direction of my path toward the pastorate– that thing I thought at the time that women couldn’t do.

After a 2003 visit, I came home inspired to not remember that my African brothers and sisters were a part of my larger human family. The atrocities of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda touched my heart in a profound way. How did this go on in my lifetime and I knew nothing about it?

After a 2012 visit, I came home with a changed heart about the possibilities and reality of who and what Feed The Children is and what it could be in the future. During our travels, I made what I feel is a life long friend– a friend would become a sweet sister in all the waiting awaiting me.

So, I have to wonder on this 2013 visit, what will shift in me as a result in being here? How will my heart go home? What amazing person will I met? How will my soul leap in understanding of what was previously unseen?

Only God knows the answers to such questions.

I hold on this, though: my heart must be open. My heart must be wide open to this place– its people, its smells, its food, its problems, its hopes, its worries, its gladness. And in doing so, this next chapter that I’m writing here will be another beautiful one. A beautiful one indeed!

July 19, 2013

Creating What Doesn’t Exist

People ask me all the time what I miss about church life? Do I miss preaching all the time? Do I miss the committee meetings? Do I miss the hospital visits? Do I miss the cranky people calling me after church on Sunday afternoon?

I’m not really sure how to answer these questions.

Because yes, I do miss church life.

I miss putting on a robe on Sunday morning with the wind of courage behind me, filled with something to say to eager listeners.

I miss people calling me to say “I just needed to talk to my pastor.”

I miss the privilege of walking an adult through a baptismal process and seeing the light come to their eyes just before the water touches them.

I miss Sunday potlucks– you know the meal that is best served at a church where you really never know what exactly you are eating . . .

(But, no I don’t miss anything with the description “cranky” in it. And no, I most certainly don’t miss long committee meetings).

However, all this to say, as much as I miss these things, I know I’m in the right place. I know this season of life as a non-traditional work-er, minister type in the world is where I am to learn.

Sometimes, in life, I believe, we are asked to give up what is most comfortable, what we most know, or even what makes the most sense to us and our educated friends around us. We are asked by God to seek out the new.

I was having a conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks ago. It was a colleague I’d worked with in denominational life connected to my most recent pastorate, a colleague I hadn’t seen in six months. It was fun to see her happy face again.

Yet, personally, it was a sad day for me when we ran into each other. A day when I was thinking a lot about what I had lost and how much I missed about my former life. But this colleague surprised me with the first words coming out of her mouth were, “Girl, you are looking so good!”

How could she say that I wondered? I had just been crying in fact.

She went on to explain was that my posture seemed more relaxed, more at ease, that their was light in my eyes she hadn’t seen in me when I was going about the business of keeping a particular church in good order. I thought, well, now that’s interesting . . .

This colleague then asked me more about my future plans and what came out of my mouth was, “I feel called to create something that is yet to exist.”

Well, then. That was news to even my own ears. Called to create something that doesn’t exist . . .

Upon further reflection of this moment, I realized maybe this was why she said I was looking well. As much as I do miss the familiar or even the simple joy of putting on a robe and saying, “Thanks be to God” every Sunday– there’s something about this season of re-evaluating, of re-grouping, of renaming that suits my soul quite well.

I am more myself. I am more at ease. There’s light pointing me in new directions I might have been scared to death of years ago, but now I’m here. There’s no turning back now.

It doesn’t mean the path to get to this unknown place is easy though. It might suit my soul. But, my body doesn’t like it very much at all.

My days are often filled with self-doubt, loneliness and lots of prayers of “Why can’t I be like everyone else?”

I want to work normal hours. I want my work to be respected and acknowledged– even paid for from time to time. I want to not feel so alone as I usually do between the hours of 8-6 pm every day.

But in the meantime, I try to see the progress I’m making along this path of what I know not of, and what does not exist yet.

I eagerly look forward to any opportunities to connect with other like-minded thinkers and doers– even if I have to travel to another state to find them.

I eagerly look forward to moments when my ministerial identity gets to be expressed in an life-giving and affirming way (such is hard to come by in Oklahoma, but that’s another story for another day).

I eagerly look forward to the day– whenever that may be– when my eyes get to see the dreams come to pass that my heart has had a long-standing commitment to.

And on that day, I’m sure I’ll probably say that the journey, no matter how long or hard it has been was worth it.

But until then, all I can say is this kind of creative work is harder than I could have ever imagined.

June 28, 2013

What Does It Mean to Wait?

Today I’m still thinking a lot about what it means to wait . . .

My friend Sarah and I were catching up the other day on the phone. We’d hadn’t talked to each other in months so we quickly got down to the essence of what is going on in the ups and downs of our lives (I love these kinds of chats). In catching up I realized that we’re both waiting in different seasons of life for what is not yet and what we don’t know. While it was nice to make this connection that we’re in a similar place, it’s really not a fun state to be in at all.

For all of us who are waiting for something, we know how this feels.

The frustration of waiting can easily turn to anger, despair and life crippling anxiety.

When we wait, we can feel stuck.

When we wait, we can easily feel forgotten.

When we wait, we can feel like God is not close, but very far away.

A long term season of waiting can often turn us inward to the point that we think we’re the only person on the planet that has every waited for x.

But, we aren’t. We know this of course, but accepting it in our hearts is altogether different matter.

Yet, ultimately, waiting and hoping and not knowing in our waiting is a part of what it means to be human.

Nothing ever happens instantaneously. Often nothing good in our life comes without pain. Suffering through waiting finds us all.

We are not ever as alone as we feel.

Waiting in fact, can be a spiritual discipline that has the power to re-focus us on life-giving practices that sustain.

Waiting can turn our spirits toward other wait-ers—those who we might not otherwise encounter so deeply.

Waiting can humble the hardest places in us, even the place we didn’t think were hard at all.

Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that waiting is hard, hard work. It takes faith—faith like none other to sustain your spirit in a time like this. It takes sticking with yourself, even on the days when you think you can’t make it one more day. It takes trust: that the bigger picture is indeed worth the ride.

To my fellow wait-ers out there—whatever it is you are waiting for—know that you have a friend in me. This is the best gift I can give today.

I’m waiting with you, as I know through your reading of this post, you are waiting with me.

I hear your pain. Your struggle. Your longings. Your cries.

I know that sometimes there’s no other way to put it than to say that waiting sucks.

But, in community may we keep the faith. May we not loose heart. May we hold each other accountable to keep on waiting as the Hebrews writer spoke of faith: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

June 25, 2013

When You’re In Between

I haven’t posted in over a week for one reason: I haven’t had anything to say. For the blogging queen (as some of my friends call me), it is quite a big deal to be silent.

I currently am living in this “in between” time– between what was familiar and what was traditional and what is to come (that I know not of).

And when you are here, there’s often not a lot to say.

My normal mode of operation in times like this in the past has been to find a plan. It has been to find some idea of what is up ahead even if it is subject to change and change again. It has been to believe even still that I have some control over my own life (It’s my life after all, isn’t it?)

But, what I am learning in this “in between” time is that having a plan is not necessary to functioning (being plan-less is not a reason to NOT get out of the bed in the morning).

Ultimately, we never know what is going to happen in our lives . . . even if we think we do.

And, for me, I know this: I have little to no control around the circumstances of my life . . . even if others around me claim they do or brag that they do– they don’t and I don’t either.

Who are we to say that we will do ___ on such a day to come?

Life is life. Sometime it can be like living in one desert after another– a desert without a lot of water. Sometimes what you thought was going to happen certainly does not happen at all.

And in place like this, you often have nothing to say.

Sometimes your prayers are those where you put one foot in front of the other.

It’s a season of life where you get to learn the lesson that God is God and you are not.

This lesson about who’s really in charge of this world is lesson enough.

It’s all you’ve got. And, you survive. Somehow you survive.

Even when people you depended on at one time are no more.

Even when what you used to hold on to in the dark is no longer there.

Even when you no longer have the community that was once your bread.

You survive.

There’s hope somehow in crumbs you find that help you leap from one hard place to another.

You keep going.

This is what being “in between” is all about.

June 2, 2013

My Faith is Essential to Who I Am

There seems to be nothing profound about this statement. If you know anything about my background, you know that I graduated from seminary and I served two particular churches as a full-time pastor for 6 years. I blog all the time about religious centric topics. Duh, of course, my faith is essential to who I am. Case closed.

But, something about stating this as fact at this juncture of my life feels different. Maybe even scares me a little.

I don’t feel I’m not the kind of person who just comes out and says such so bluntly. And I really hate being lumped with these kinds of Christians who might come from these camps and start conversation with judgment before love . . .

I think actions speak for themselves. Do I love? Do I forgive? Do I consider someone’s needs before my own? Words are not always necessary.

But then this weekend, as I worked on another draft of the book proposal for my upcoming memoir about grief, I realized something I’d never thought of in such a strong way. And that is: my faith is essential to who I am.

As I wrote the words on the page of this proposal, it felt like I had invited myself into my own coming out party.

For, there was no way I could describe the book I’ve written without talking about the interwoven themes of God’s provisions, God’s love and God’s direction within my story.

I just couldn’t.

And even though I so desperately don’t want an expression of my faith to be lumped together with the kind of Christian paths that I’ve seen hurt people and that (in my humble opinion) don’t seem to be grounded in the teachings of Jesus, I couldn’t tell my story without it being a FAITH story.

As I wrote the marketing plan for the book that I hope one day soon with convince a publisher to want to print my narrative (hopefully a non-religious publisher!), I couldn’t help but think that the reason why I believe my spiritual memoir will sell is because search of something, or someone greater than ourselves IS what deep down we’re ALL looking for. Search for spiritual connection to the Divine and one another is essential to the human experience.

And with all of this true, we crave stories of faith in all shapes and sizes.

We crave stories that will tell us how others made movement in their lives when all seemed lost.

We craves stories that tell us how messy weaves of relationships can survive deep wounds.

We crave stories that tell us how hope born in our hearts rides the waves of the most turbulent storms.

And, though at first glance my book might seem off-putting to the very people I want to reach with my story–
those on the edge of a religious tradition
those who are in the throws of deep grief without a faith community
or those who have only experienced people of faith as obnoxious

I can’t tell my story any other way than: faith is essential to who I am.

What about you? How do you talk about the spiritual part of you? Or do you talk about it at all?

February 21, 2013

Abundant Life

plazaJesus says to his disciples: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

It’s one of those scripture passages that I’ve had in my head for years thanks to all that time spent in church.

It’s one of those scriptures that prosperity gospel types like to quote when they’re seeking to prove that what God really wants to give us is abundant wealth. Joel Osteen anyone?

It’s also one of those scripture passages that altar call preachers use to talk about “getting saved.” Oh my.

It’s a passage that conjures up visions of heaven and hell– who is going where.

I dislike it all of these uses.

Yet, lately I find myself sitting with this word “abundant” with fresh eyes, thinking about the movements in my own life and those around me too.

And this is what I think: we are scared out of our pants of the word “abundance.” We really like our poverty instead.

Of course this phrase sounds contradictory. Who doesn’t want to have something? Who doesn’t want to receive blessing? It’s rare that you meet a person in poverty who says, “I’d like to live in the slums for the rest of my life.”

But, honestly, I think so many of us do! It is often much easier being miserable than it is accepting the vulnerability of healing, especially when that healing asks our life movements to change. Because poverty is what we know. We feel comfortable with our pains, even if they are pains nonetheless. We like being left alone and no one bothering us with the challenge of asking for more.

Recently, I’ve found myself in several conversations with two camps of people. Those who have pushed through difficult times in their life toward abundance and those who are stuck in muck and just don’t want to get out.

Just yesterday, I looked a friend in the eyes who I know has worked hard to fight for her own life (even when it meant facing difficult days of doubt, depression, and even wondering how in the world she’d make it to the other side) saying, “I’m so proud of you. . . . I”m so happy for the joy that I see in you. . . . Please don’t ever stop fighting for abundance life and kick my ass if I ever stop either.” It was a moment to look back on the past and with gratitude for all that God has done.

I was in a similar conversation with another friend a couple of weeks ago who said things to me like, “I’m just don’t think my life is ever going to get better. . . . I guess I have to get used to this. . . . Nothing good in life happens to me. . . . I can’t imagine trusting people again.” And yet upon hearing these litany of words, my heart just sank. Because I knew abundant hope had been completely taken off the table for the person.

Sure, in life we are all on a journey. We go through seasons. Sometimes we must just hide in our caves for a while and be sad, angry or bitter. Sometimes these seasons of hopelessness last for a long time, even longer than we would like. And it just is what it is. And sometimes those dear ones in our life like pastors, friends, or family members hold up our hands (just as Joshua and others did for Moses in the wilderness) just have to be the ones who keep us going.

But then there comes a time when enough is a enough. A time comes when we need to look up to the hills from which comes our help. Our calling is to say yes to abundance. Our calling is to say yes to hope– even if we can’t see the way ahead clearly. Our calling is simply to receive. And in the process surround ourselves with others who can help us move in this way– for abundance is so big that often we just can’t take it in alone.

So, I ask you where are you today? And what is holding YOU back from God’s best for your life?

And, for those of you who were wondering– I had a lovely birthday yesterday. A perfect day of abundance to savor for a long time!

October 24, 2012

Why Do You Pray?

As a child, I was taught that prayer was talking to God. It was right to give thanks to God for food. I was encouraged to pray for those who were going through difficult times. I learned that if you didn’t confess sin before you prayed then God wouldn’t be too happy with you.

And, while I learned to like God and all through these years of Christian education at church– all of the “rules” of prayer seemed to be just that, rules. I didn’t understand why I was told to have a relationship with God, but yet there were so many particular rules.  As I grew up and learned to make friends, I came to realize that relationships are always in flux, changing over time, growing as life beats on. So, then, why then did God want me to talk to him at 20 the same way that I did when I was 5? This is what my church lead me to believe.

I took a break from prayer for many years in my 20s, at least serious prayer that is. I know that’s not something that preacher types usually share; for they fear it will ruin their holy complex. Well, if you have a holy complex about me, let it go now. I’m just a human being like everyone else.

And, it’s so true. For many, many years, I didn’t really “get” prayer, at least private prayer. Sure, I could stand up in church on Sunday mornings and ask God to bless the sick in my congregation, those with troubles in the world and find a way to end with the Lord’s Prayer– but things weren’t so intimate with God and me. I didn’t see the point, especially as I walked through difficult situations and nothing about my situation seemed to change . . .

But over the last year or so, this has shifted. And I now pray for completely different reasons.

My baby steps back toward prayer centered on praying for those I love.

I don’t know if you are like me or not, but when I love, I fiercely love. I love my congregation members. I love my husband. I love my dears kindred spirit friends. I love dear ones of all kinds that find a way to intersect my life in unique ways. And for me, sometimes, it is hard to know what to do with that love. I truly want the best for them. I want to see them thrive. I want life to be as good to them as it possibly can. However, there comes a time when relationally I have done or can do all I can, but yet my heart isn’t at peace for them. So I pray.  I find joy in giving those I love to God.

And, so I’ve learned to pray– love by praying. To ask God, who I believe is the divine parent of us all– to watch over those I know are in need of peace, support or wisdom in their daily lives.

A funny thing has happened to me along the way. I have found myself wanting to pray more. It’s no longer a chore. It’s a sweetness in my day. It has become a relationship between God and my community.

While many might think, it’s shallow– to just pray for people who you love– I say, don’t judge too quickly. In getting the conversation going again, God has come near to me in other ways. I’m beginning to get back to all the other stuff too like “Oh, God I have fallen short of your best for me in this way” or “Oh, God bless those in need in far away places” or “God bless so and so who really annoys me.”

So, why do I pray now? I pray out of relationship. Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I really mess things up. But, I keep learning to pray because I long for the Creator of this world to bless those whom have touched by life so profusely. I pray because it is an act which connects me to the soul of others like nothing else. I pray because as my compassion muscles are able to grow for others, I truly believe I come and learn more of who God truly is. God comes near– the best gift of all.

October 16, 2012

To Love Mercy

Mark 10:17-31

Last week, we began by asking ourselves some big picture questions as a congregation: who are we? And where are we going? Following the lead of Micah 6:8, we answered by remembering that our first calling as a community is to do justice by simply opening our eyes and seeing people that we might otherwise overlook.  Justice begins with opening our eyes to see. But this morning, let’s take the conversation one step further—asking again, who are we?

If you are like most, you probably would answer this question based on where you find yourself in this moment of your life. I am a grandmother. I am retired. I live in Reston. I work in Tysons. I live in a brick house. I drive a Honda hybrid.

Though we know intellectually that we are more than our jobs or more than our titles or even more than what we own, it is very easy to talk about who we are by the stuff around us. It very easy to be people who are always out for the hunt for something more—just as a recent survey of American reported than a large majority feel that they deserve right now a 20% increase in pay or that if they made at least 20% more money than they made right now then they’d be happier.

But Micah’s exhortation encourages us today—that our second call as congregation is to be a people who “love mercy.” People who not only see the needs of those around them, but begin to use their resources they have—whether they be time, talent or even finances to come to the aid of others.

And in this calling, as we consider living it out, can come in direct assault to the ways and the stuff around us that we normally define ourselves by.  What if we didn’t buy the new I Phone 5 and instead sponsored a child monthly through a relief organization in lieu of that extra special data cell phone plan? What if we waited to purchase a vacation home and instead agreed to assist our grandchildren for paying for college? What if we left our high paying job (and thus guarantee for an early retirement) for a career in the non-profit sector where we knew we could use our talents for the great good of our community?

Ouch! This “love mercy” stuff is no easy calling . . .

However, as we take a closer look at our gospel lesson for this morning, we know that we are in good company.  The earliest disciples suffered from the same struggle too.  The cost of discipleship was in fact harder than their check-list faith paradigm from the past might have otherwise imagined.

As recorded in Mark 10, Jesus has had a hectic day of ministry but a man comes running toward him after the blessing of the children. This man was a courageous young fellow as he risked ridicule by humbly approaching this Teacher everyone was talking about.  Clues from other gospels help identify him by the title of Rich Young Ruler.

And because of his wealth, this was also a guy who we can imagine got everything his heart desired—only the best social status, the best camel his dinari could buy, and handsome garments to wear to prove to the world that he was somebody. Basically, his life was on a direct path where everything was as it should be. (Though I’m sure he still thought he needed 20% more!)

Furthermore, from this passage, we gather that even in the religious realm, the Rich Young Ruler was the kind of guy with every t crossed and i dotted— he followed the commandments of his faith doing everything that was expected of him.

However, one huge unanswered question mark remained. Was he completing the right to-do list? The Rich Young Ruler wanted to know if his efforts to be a godly person were enough to get him on the “Who’s Who of God’s People” yearbook.

Thus, we hear him uttering this question to Christ: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in verse 17.

And this question is not just one that 1st century Jews were asking themselves—it still lingers as one of the most pondered questions in the modern-day.

Answer the question in a book of 150 pages or less with good marketing and you’ll be a bestselling author. Speak prophetically about the nature of salvation with specific dates about Jesus’ second coming and you’ll be the founder of a new branch of Christianity. Preach a five step salvation plan and you might just be a pastor of a growing mega church.

But why? I believe it’s because there is something in all of us that craves a checklist faith: we want concrete answers. We want a rubric that leaves us with a chart full of gold stars from God at the end of our lives. And we want all of these achievements in a package we can easily understand, so we’ll have time left where we can cram in everything else in our lives that we think is important.

In the same way, the Rich Young Ruler truly got this desire of ours. In his craving to know what Jesus’ bottom line was for salvation, he was just asking to see the black and white meaning of eternal salvation. So, why couldn’t Jesus, this good teacher, just tell him? He knew whatever it was, he could do it.

In typical Jesus fashion, he steers clear of an easy answer and adds an impossible addendum to the commandments he was already keeping in verse 21: “Go, sell everything that you have and give it to the poor.”

“What, are you crazy?” the man must have thought, “This is NOT what I expected to hear!”

For, he knew he could not give up everything as Jesus said. Jesus was asking for ownership of ALL of his life, not just the part he could easily give him.

Having a conversation about money and faith . . . Oh, this would be too hard. Impossible in fact, for a guy like him, as everything in his life was tied in some way to physical possessions.

Asking this man to give up his stuff was more than just a call to poverty (as this passage is not just about money), but it was a call to complete surrender of his life. It was a call to acts of mercy, to a lifestyle of mercy.

Thus, we read in verse 22 that the man’s “face fell” upon hearing Jesus’ exhortation. He journeys away saddened by the proposal. For, he could do nothing.

And, the Rich Young Ruler was not the only one for whom to love mercy would be difficult.

The disciples found themselves confused too. Was there any possibility of salvation for them either? Peter (as always) quickly speaks: “We have left everything to follow you!” Peter wants to make it clear that if anyone had made great sacrifices, they certainly had. Wouldn’t that certainly be enough for his kingdom? And while Jesus says their efforts will be recognized, he doesn’t directly answer the question. Because to love mercy was not something that could be translated  into a black and white spread sheet or action that could be qualified by human standards . . .

Because perhaps because Jesus’ life provided a completely new paradigm of loving neighbors that would not be dependent on human ability to follow the law . . .

Perhaps because salvation would take its cues from the cross— a place of self-emptying, a place of unselfish love, a place where the mercy of our Lord the gift given for us all!

You see, the type of kingdom the Rich Young Ruler, the disciples and even you and I are often looking for is one where we don’t have to suffer. A kingdom where we can be sure of our salvation we had the right answers or a kingdom where our faith does not have to change our daily to-day lifestyle, vacation plans or shopping trips to the mall. Many of us live on fixed incomes after all. We’ve made decisions about what to do with our finances years before we retired. There is no way we could change now!

I feel I would remiss if I didn’t interject here that I totally understand how hard this is, to open up a conversation on acts of mercy that flow out of our pocketbook.

Not even pastor types, with a Revs in front of their names are experts at mercy. We too like our stuff as much as the next person.  (It is true, that I have been accused on many occasions of having a love obsession with my IPad or my purse collection).

Maybe this is why Jesus said in verse 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Did you know that in Jerusalem there is an eye in the needle gate? Kevin and I saw it ourselves a couple years ago on a trip to the region.

In ancient times, the needle of the eye gate was purposely built with a very small entry way so to prohibit invaders from coming into the city. However, this safety feature was not without its disadvantages. What if they wanted to get necessary goods into the city?

When traders wanted to come into the city of David with their camels (or other animals) loaded with goods, they could not fit in the gate. The only way for the camels to get in “the eye of the needle” gate was for the owners to unload their goods and leave it outside until someone else was able to bring it in through another way.

So, to is our work if we are going to be people who enter the kingdom of God as lovers of mercy.  If we are going to be people who live in the city of God, then we are going to have unload on a regular basis, so to make room for of God’s ways in our lives.

But, why? Really, why mercy? Could that just be left to someone else?

Biblical commentator, David Lose, answers the question in this way—we love mercy because:

The way we spend our money (and I would add here time and talents) “has a great impact on the welfare of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doen’t just tell the man simply to give his wealth away, but rather he tells him to give it to the poor. . . . Jesus invites not just the rich man but all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of our wealth, charged to use all that we have to best care of all the people God has given us as companions along the way.”

We love mercy because there are those whom we need to assist that will not otherwise have what they need unless we give. Simple as that.

He also adds that we are to love mercy because:

The way we spent our money (or our time and talents) has a great impact on our own welfare as well. Consider [how our relationship with what we earn ourselves] can mask our dependence on God and each other by creating a sense not just of independence, but actually of not needing each other. . . . Jesus knows there are few things more important than for us to do than to share our abundance.”

We love mercy because it is good for us. We remember who our Creator. We remember to whom we belong which is to ALL our human brothers and sisters. We remember that just as we give, we receive.

How did this passage end? Look with me at verse 31. It’s a favorite of mine: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This my friends, is THE radical message of the teachings of Jesus. Our life is found loving mercy. For as we give we might just find that no matter how much money is or is not in our bank accounts, retirement funds, or how much our savings bonds are worth, we’d rather love mercy than be in love with our new car, dream vacation or even season tickets to our favorite sporting team.

Hear me not say today that Jesus is not anti-stuff or anti fun. God, I believe wants to us to enjoy what brings us delight and what we’ve been blessed with. What good is it to have anything if we walk around feeling guilty about it all the time?

But, in the end, we are to love the most is mercy. Our lives as Christians are to overflow with mercy. Or church is to overflow with mercy—not just when we have enough in savings or our building suddenly stops aging or when our pledges get over a certain amount for the year ahead or even when we have a certain number of people in worship, when we think we can afford  it. Nope. Mercy is never about cost and benefit analysis. Nope. Jesus says, “Be merciful now. Be merciful now. It’s what I’ve asked you to do if you want to follow me.”


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.


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