Sunday, October 11, 2015

Seasons Part Two

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon and stars in their courses above, Join with all nature in manifold witness; To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love  Verse 2, Great is Thy Faithfulness

There are seasons in our lives.  Times when emotionally, physically, or spiritually we feel in a season of spring growth, summer sustaining, autumn harvest, or winter fallow-ness.  One place of tension can be when we feel in one season in one place in our lives and another season at another place.  For example, maybe work is one season and family is another.  We can also feel in different seasons within our own bodies.  We can feel physically in a time of rest and barrenness, while emotionally in spring time.  At such moments, being in different seasons within our bodies, usually one will dominate and even direct the other parts of our lives.  Do you sense that one season might be a bit more over-powering?  I sometimes suspect that feeling in winter emotionally, physically, or spiritually can be a dominate theme even if in the other two places you feel vital and more alive.  Or maybe you feel inexplicably irritable or restless or just plain off/out-of-sync.  

The hymn above reminds us that no matter what season or seasons...God is there with mercy and love.  While last time we look at the growth of spring, we step into the sustainability of summer.  Summer is that season where things feel like they are swimming along.  Summer can be a time of rest or vacations.  Summer can be the time when storms pop up, suddenly and even severe and dangerous.  Just as spring brings fragile, new growth as well as mud.  Spring can be a transition time when there is the possibility of a warm snow or cold rain.  Those days eventually give way to warmer and warmer days.  In Florida, there is a pattern to a summer day.  The heat and humidity build to an afternoon rain shower, which adds even more humidity until you start to feel like you are swimming in moist air.  

Spring and summer share the promise of slow growth.  Tomatoes sprouts eventually bring forth leaves, then buds, then small green tomatoes which ripen and turn red under the warmth of the summer sun.  Where is your spirituality growing?  Are you growing more emotionally healthy?  Are you caring for your one precious, wild life (as Mary Oliver calls it).  We never stop growing.  We never stop thinking.  At a recent class, I was reminded that you cannot stop your thoughts...otherwise you are no longer alive.  So, our thoughts guide us, either toward healing/wholeness or toward barrenness.  Sometimes we need those no productive winter times.  We need moments of rest and to stop creating all the time.  

In the next post, we will talk about harvest and move into winter.  But for now, I invite you to ponder prayerfully those places of growth.  For me, the seeds that I am seeking to cultivate in the spring and summer of my soul are what Paul called the fruits of the Spirit which are: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23),  While that list can be a bit daunting...I also remember that these are not the fruits produced by Wes...they are the fruits of the Spirit of God.  Opening to the Spirit in the spring of each morning I pray those seeds (rather than the seeds of gossip or fear or scarcity) will grow in my life that day.  Even if the growth seems small...that is still a trace of God's amazing grace in my life.  and I pray for yours too.

Blessings ~ 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Seasons of Life

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven Ecclesiastes 3

There are seasons within our life.  Times when we go through droughts and dry spots, feeling under the scorching heat of stress like a Florida summer.  Times when we are intentionally barren, choosing to let rest and renewal happen like in an Iowa corn field in winter.  Times when life feels renewed or reborn like spring.  Times of noticeable transitions like autumn.  The questions is, what season are you in?  Where do you find yourself?  Maybe in-between a season, not quite one or the other.  

Over the next few posts I want to look at the seasons then talk about the church seasons.  Noticing and naming what season we are in spiritually, emotionally and physically is important.  Some of the tension in our lives comes from feeling spiritually in one season and emotionally in another.  Yet, at other times, we might feel in one season spiritually and it will dominate and dictate over our body and heart.  So, living seasonally, can help...even in Florida where the shifts are subtle.

For example, it is now fall around here.  True the leaves are not radiant red or beautiful yellows.  My sweaters are still tucked away.  But, I do notice that the air feels less humid, there was a cool breeze swirling around yesterday out in the yard, and autumn is taking hold.  While I miss the fireworks display nature puts on in the north...I do not miss the snow.  

I want to start with spring, a time of renewal and rebirth.  There is a famous passage in John where a leader of the religious order named Nicodemus goes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.  He does this both literally so that he may not be seen by others and metaphorically because he does not see clearly what Jesus' ministry is all about.  Jesus says to him that he has to be re-born.  I know, lots of religious people take that literally.  They say you have to have some kind of experience, maybe say a certain prayer.  And those of us in the progressive moment want to distance ourselves so much from that image, that maybe we have left John chapter 3 behind too quickly missing the need we all have for spring time.

We need places in our life where something is just beginning to bud.  I can think of three conversations I had last week where there was a new sprout of life peaking out.  To be sure, it is vulnerable...things may not go as I am hoping or planning...I need to wait and see what happens.  In spring you take one step and then ask, "What is the next right step?"  Too often we want to rush, microwave and micro-manage growth.  That makes some sense.  Our food is so process and rushed to the stores today that we've become impatient and want it now...right now please!  Growth takes time.  It is the slow steady work, some of which is in our control and some is beyond our grasp.  So, each day you tend and look for even the slightest change.  Rebirth happens slowly sometimes.  We need places where we are feeling the steady flow of the spirit.

Do you have a sense of spring in your life right now?  Often when we struggle it is because we either want to rush the germination process or because the new sprout of life is vulnerable it is can be broken easily.  To be sure, there is excitement and joy in spring.  Think about those first conversations that went all night with your partner.  Where one topic led to another to another, and you were so fascinated at the discovery, that you just kept talking.  Spring enlivens.  Spring can be soggy at times.  I also think that each season has it possibilities and struggles.  So the possibility of spring is new life...the struggle is waiting for the flower to bloom and reveal its color.  The struggle is our patience...the promise is that over time, the growth can be see if we are looking and watching.
Where is spring right now in your life?  Or, where is that trace of grace happening right now?  I pray you are able to notice and name at least one place and that it will strangely warm your heart.

May the God of all seasons receive you and bless you now and in the days to come.    

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Power of music and power of community

I wanted to share the above video as a reminder about the power of community and the power of music.  The people here wanted to have the Foo Fighters come and play a concert in their they made a video.  Almost 25 million people have watched this.  First, I find it fascinating that someone came up with this idea.  Second, that people would come and do this.  But then again, people show up every Sunday to sing hymns, pray, and (what really makes me marvel) listen to a sermon!  These are not everyday activities, but there is power in the communal.  I am sure people had a blast meeting other people who drum or play guitar or sing.

In what ways are you connecting with others?  Where do you find community?

These are important questions for parents feeling stretched and pulled in many directions and that if their child doesn't get into that program the whole future is bleak.  It is important for people who are retired and wondering how to not just fill their day, but do so with purpose.  It is important for people nearing the end of life, in that last chapter, who do you write that well?

Too often, we feel isolated because we don't ask the above questions publicly.  But we need to.  We need to be willing to see how your question connects to others people's questions and how they are different.

I pray you will enjoy the video.

I pray you will seek relationships that set your soul singing.

I pray this will open you to more than a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~

Sunday, September 27, 2015


He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.  Genesis 37

So far in Genesis we have encountered creation, how God sang all that is seen and unseen into being.  How God sunk God's fingers into the soil and breathed the breath of life into us.  How Adam and Eve hid from God, prompting that great spiritual question, "Where are you?" from God...a question that we will never be able to answer or exhaust fully.  We heard about violence begetting violence in Cain and Abel.  We studied how God appeared under a star-filled sky.  Now, we land in this great narrative of Joseph.  Joseph was a dreamer.  

On one level we all have dreams...both the literal kind that happen when we fall asleep at well as prayers for our future.  I remember in Introduction to Psychology in college, the professor was studying dreams asking, "Why do you have to lose consciousness?"  The class said, "Well, maybe our eyes need a rest from all the visual stimulation."  "Okay," the professor said, "But why do we fall unconscious?  Why don't we just shut our eyes and try to relax?  Why sleep?"  That is a great question.  I wonder if we need that mental break, especially in a world where we are constantly being subjected to stimuli...visually and verbally and within our own minds.  Maybe sleep is the only way to disengage fully from all that is happening around and within us.  

I also think our brain might need a place where all that we experience can come together in some bizarre ways.  Our mind has a way of taking that tense moment, combining it with our fear about an upcoming presentation, and how much clowns freak us out...suddenly, we are giving a talk to a room of clowns who are booing us.  Dreams do show us some deep parts of our consciousness, but is that where we find God?  For some reading this, yes.  For others, no.  Some dreams can leave us feeling icky all day long...others reassure us.  

Dreams happen not only at night...but in broad daylight when we hope and pray and envision a new reality. Scripture says that yesterday need not be like today and tomorrow is a new creation.  We trust in this promise, but we need dreams and hopes to keep us trusting and leaning into God's grace to guide us...sometimes leading us in new places.  Joseph is lead to a new place...albeit because his brothers sold him!  Sometimes we go unwillingly to new places too.

I encourage you in these fall days to keep open to our dreams and where God might (and might not) be moving in our midst.  May we sense the traces of God's grace as we do so!

Blessings and peace ~ 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Abraham and Sarah: Genesis 18

So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?"  Genesis here to read the whole story

Exhibit A is when Ethan walks out with a mischievous smile on his face and says, “Dad why are jokes about Minnesotan’s so short?”  And I say, “I don’t know, why?”  And he says, “So Iowans can remember them.”  (Insert rim-shot here)

Exhibit B is the story of an angel who went around visiting congregations.  At first, the angel stopped by the Methodists who were so nice, invited the angel to a potluck meal featuring hot dishes and a whole table of Jell-O desserts.  The angel reports all this to God who was pleased.  The next day, the angel visited the Baptists, whose enthusiastic worship was infectious and left the angel singing all the way home.  Again God was pleased.  So, the next day, the angel visited a UCC church.  But the angel did not return that night with a report.  Nor the next night.  Nor the next.  So, God was concerned, went out and found the angel cowering in a corner of the Fellowship Hall.  After God comforted and calmed the angel down, God asked what happened.  Well, the angel says, they have this group called the Nominating Committee here.  I guess UCC stands for United Church of Committees.   (Insert rim-shot here)

Exhibit C is the sound of your groans at my lame above attempts to make a joke.  

Laughter is a gift.  An author once wrote, that laughter breaks us out of the small world of somberness and seriousness.  When was the last time you laughed so hard your side ached, tears dripped from your eyes, and you gasped for breath?  My hunch is that it was not at church.  But such deep laughter lets oxygen into our soul that can clear away cobwebs,  Deep laughter beautifully shatters our need to appear completely in control.  Laughter invites and invokes.  Or as one author says, you cannot love a person until you’ve laughed with her.
Exhibit D is this story above about the patron saints of laughter, Abraham and Sarah and their soon to be born son, Isaac, whose very name means laughter.  Yet, my guess is you did not laugh when you clicked on the above link to read the whole story.  So, let’s try this again.  Abraham is sitting at his tent door in the middle of day.  We are talking hotter than Florida in September kind of heat, where the sun shines unmercifully, searing all that it touches, and sending up waves from the sand.  You can imagine Abe getting a bit sleepy, his eyes heavy, when suddenly appear three people before him.  Now, as the ones eavesdropping on this sacred moment, we know that it is the Lord, Yahweh, God.  But it is not clear if that is how Abraham sees his guests.  All we know is that he bursts into full scale Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay combined with a dash of Usian Bolt.  He starts running around.  Picture that.  His feet touching the hot sand, so he is kind of running on his tip toes like you do when going to the beach.  He has his robe yanked up so he can move faster.  His first stop is Sarah’s tent.  He yells to make cakes and has the audacity to tell her how to make it.  I am pretty sure Sarah had made bread before.  But before she can respond, Abraham is off to get a calf, milk, and curds that he will put into a delicious Jell-O mold served on a lettuce leaf.  And while it doesn’t say it, he probably made a dolphin ice sculpture and folded the napkins into the shape of a swan.  

He serves all that to his guests.  I have to wonder if they even picked up their forks to poke at this feast.  Because the visitors didn’t seem to come for the buffet,  Rather they ask, “Where is your wife, Sarah?”  I can just see Abraham confused and flummoxed, stammering out his words, “Um, in the tent?”  All the while thinking, “Why in the world are they asking that?”  And suddenly the promise that was echoed to Abraham under a star-filled sky in chapter 17, a promise that Abe himself fell on the ground and laughed at, circles back.  Sarah will have a baby.

The next part is one of the funniest moments in Scripture.  The narrator gives us an aside.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old.  And as the listener, I am all, “Okay.”  But it keeps going.  “They were advanced in age.”  And I am all, “Right, heard you the first time, I get it!!”  And finally, "It had ceased to be with Sarah the manner of women."  And all I can think is, “Yup, and I thought people shared too much on Facebook.”  So, Sarah and Abraham are promised a child.   

Unfortunately, too often, the lingering residue of sexism has been woven into this passage.  We been taught to hear the visitor’s response to Sarah’s laughter as confrontational at best or condemnation at worse.  But maybe there is another way to read this and say our past interpretations were wrong.  I think the visitors are laughing along with Sarah.  Of course, Sarah laughed.  Just as hopefully you are laughing now.  Can you read the, "Oh yes you did laugh" not in an angry tone, but as the guests laughing so hard they can barely get the words out?  This is such a profound, beautiful story.  I love that God comes to Abraham and Sarah in the midst of the mundane and ordinary of a Tuesday.  I love that lingering question, “Is anything too wonderful?"  Or that could also be translated, 'Hard for God?' And that is not rhetorical, that is our question.  Every person reading this is dealing with some kind of barrenness, brokenness, given up on ever experiencing grace.  We have moments of God-forsakenness.  And in the midnight of our soul, laughter is a prayer.  Not a prayer that everything is going to be all chocolate rivers and rainbows, but that even when the lingering chaos that first swirled at creation comes roaring in, there are still traces of grace.  

But it is hard to see the trace of grace through the blur of tears of grief, loss, brokenness, stresses and strain.  In moments when we’ve given up all hope and God’s promise feels empty, laughter is a prayer that can echo in the cavernous parts of our soul, awakening us to something new.  And finally, this story has so much to teach us about stewardship.  Abraham promises water, rest, and shade, and ends up giving them a feast fit for royalty.  Abraham thinks all he needs to offer is tangible gifts, but God is there looking for Abraham and Sarah’s whole life.  Stewardship is about recognizing and responding to God from whom all blessings flow with all we have.  Our offerings to God are not only about money, be we offer the blessings of laughter, blessings of someone’s shoulder to cry on, blessings of someone who will listen, someone to be angry on your behalf and share in the ups and downs of life.  Someone to reach out to the lost, lonely, left out, those on the edge.  You see for all that we could philosophically talk about whether anything is too wonderful for God, the real question is, how do we live trusting in that truth?  How do we leap each day into knowing that God will show up sometimes with the most seemingly unbelievable ideas?  

Offering our whole life, trusting in the radical promises of God’s presence every day, and sharing laughter, that sounds like the kind of person I pray I can be and the community I would give my whole life to.  What you say, all in favor, signify by laughing. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Genesis 4

When I stare into the mirror that the story of Cain and Abel holds up to my life this morning, I am reminded that no group puts the fun in dysfunction quite like your family.  Church committees can sometimes come close.  But family members know that special combination of buttons to push that can send your blood pressure soaring and the tiny vein in your forehead pulsating.  While culture shows us families with lovable curmudgeons, perfectly timed commercial breaks, and everything being resolved in neat and tidy ways within a half hour.  I soon realized that one, family tensions we have can sometimes fester for years with the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about it... whatever “it” is.  While the hymn is right, "Blessed be the ties that bind," sometimes those ties can also make us feel bound and gagged with guilt or brokenness or pain.  As you read Genesis 4, it is like looking into the mirror of Cain and Abel, you may only want to glance, not gaze too long.  The witness of Scripture on sibling relationships is not exactly an uplifting one.  Brothers, Jacob and Esau wrestle in the womb, only to have Jacob fool his father and steal the birthright blessing. Sisters, Leah and Rachel both vie for the affection of Jacob. The dreamer Joseph annoys his brothers with talk of them bowing down to him, so they sell him off, only later to have him play a prank on his brothers who come groveling to Egypt to get food, just to have a reunion with his father.  And it is not only in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus most famous parable is about the Prodigal Son, whose relationship with his family is like watching an episode of Dr. Phil and leaves you saying, “Gee I thought my family was dysfunctional.” 
So, Cain and Abel might be a difficult story, my prayer is that as we dwell with these words, we might find traces of grace and realize the truth that pain in our lives that is not process is passed along.  We start with Cain, the older brother, whose name means, "Spear."  He is part of the noblest profession, farmer...said the person from Iowa!  Later comes along, the younger brother, the apple of Adam and Eve’s eyes, the one who gets the car and the easier punishments and the better parenting, can I get an Amen from the older siblings reading the blog?  Abel means breath and he becomes a shepherd.  Pause with me, because I love the way Scripture echoes.  Genesis 2 talks of God breathing in the breath of two chapters later, Adam who received God's CPR, calls his second son, "Breath".  That is beautiful.
One day, Cain and Abel bring an offering to God.  Notice, up to this point, God has not asked for an offering.  This is the first act of worship described in Scripture.  And we don’t know what prompts this moment.  Maybe gratitude or holy obligation or some messy mixture that still stirs in us on Sunday morning that brings you to church rather than lounging around reading the comics.  But there is this worship moment.  And we are told that God’s reaction to Cain’s offering is, “Eh,” while God responds to Abel with applause and a standing ovation.  Again, we don’t know why.  Perhaps Cain brought some broccoli, I am sure he did not bring corn, because this story would be totally different.  Maybe, some rabbis suggest, it was what was in Cain’s heart or that he brought leftovers to God.  That is challenging.  How many of us, when we pray or worship or tend our relationship with the Holy Other offer God lukewarm left overs?  And as interesting as dwelling with why the brothers worshiped and why God gave Cain’s gift only one star and Abel’s gift five stars, it is the next scene that captures my heart.
God says to Cain, why are you angry?  Why are you distressed and dejected?  The Hebrew here can be translated, why are your faces downcast?  God names Cain’s innermost feelings.  God cuts through the masks we often wear and shines a light on what is in our souls.  And that is not easy.  We like to think we have everyone fooled when we put on a smile and say that everything is “Fine, just fine,” even though we say that through clinched teeth and our shoulders are more tense and tight than a freshly wound spring.  C.S. Lewis often said that God’s interest and affection and insight into us was the intolerable compliment.  We couldn’t handle that.  In some ways, religion likes to put conditions on unconditional love. In churches we make each other jump through hoops with statements of faith and membership forms and even this act of passing the offering plates that put barriers between us and God.  God becomes distant and disinterested in us.  But in this story, God comes to Cain as a counselor and confident.  Be careful, Cain, God says, brokenness can beget brokenness.  Do you notice that Genesis 4 echoes Genesis 3?  There is temptation that leads to a decision and action that leads to conversation that leads to consequences.  The writers of Genesis introduce this theme in the early pages of Scripture and return to this refrain time and time again.  You could even say, holy week, is a riff on that same refrain.
So, Cain goes and murders Abel.  And I don’t think this is because of some defective or deficient strain in our DNA that has been passed down.  I think it is because brokenness begets brokenness.  Someone gossips about you behind your back, you feel your checks rush, flood red with anger and hurt and humiliation, and so you turn around and spread a rumor about that person.  The cycles of violence, physical and emotional and psychological have been turning since the very beginning of human relationships.  That was true in the time when people shared sacred stories around campfires and it is still turn over cups of coffee we share at Starbucks.  Brokenness begets brokenness and it takes grace, more than just positive thinking or our own will, to over come and break out of that.  Most of us get mired in the messiness of relationships.  We know what it is like to feel hurt and harmed by family and friends, to clinch our fists and teeth and try to count to ten.  We know the greatest lie is told in the rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."  Words hurt.  And we hurt each other.  Just like in Genesis 3, God asks Cain, where is Abel?  God continually asks, where are you?  God asks us to be open to our location.  Or to quote an author, we need to pay attention to what we are paying attention to.  Cain shrugs his shoulders, “How should I know where Abel is?  Go ask the sheep.”  While our ethic of love demands us to care for each other, to be each other’s keepers, in the initial pages of Scripture it is God who is the keeper of humans.  Notice, even when God convicts Cain of the crime, it does not break the bond of unconditional love or unceasing grace.  Cain cries out over his punishment and God promises to watch and keep Cain, even though he was unwilling to do the same.  God marks Cain not with a scarlet letter, but as a sacred sign, even a blessing, to live differently.
Cain goes off and settles in Nod, means wandering or restlessness.  It means he was unsettled.  Ever been to Nod?  Ever unpack the boxes in a new place, but still feel homeless?  Ever been in that place where your soul was restless and could not find rest?  If so, you’ve visited Nod, maybe you are living or vacationing there right now.  So what?  Why care about this story?  On the one hand, I think this narrative pushes back on redemptive violence.  It holds that mirror to the ways we hurt and harm each other.  Even when we don’t kill, we still damage each other.  This narrative tells us that from the very beginning, before there was Moses with the Ten Commandments, killing, harming each other, was un-kosher in God’s creation.  This story point great themes of life and death, intimacy and jealousy, offering and inadequacy, honesty and political spinning.  Finally, this story reminds us that the great phrase, "Whoever you are and wherever you are really," was not created by the UCC, it was God’s gospel truth from the very beginning.  So may you this week, gaze, not just glace, at the relationships in your life.  May you this week, know that our God does not put a mark of judgement but one of unconditional love upon us.  And may you pause where you are, survey your surroundings, to see if you are in Nod or Oz or Sarasota or somewhere in-between, but may you know the truth of whoever and wherever God is there.  And may that be good news to heal our souls for the living out of these days.  Amen.

Genesis 3

Genesis...this book of beginnings and attempts to respond (not necessarily answer once and for all, but contribute to the on-going conversations that matter) to the big questions of life: if we were created good and set in a beautiful garden (albeit one that had loneliness of Adam and anxiety of Eve talking to the serpent), why is life so hard?  Enter in a dialogue with snake...a forbidden of their nakedness...and God walking in the garden.  This would be where you want to cue the dramatic music please.  Go ahead...I'll wait.

The narrative of Adam and Eve is about our humanness in full, beautiful display.  But this narrative is NOT an eraser that wipes clean God's original blessedness and proclamation that you are good...VERY good.  Rather, this introduces tension.  Or rather seeks to respond to why we feel tension in our lives.

We all live in that messy middle of blessedness and brokenness.  It is just east of Eden, where we feel like we are so close to what could be an amazing, awesome and life-changing encounter...but we are stuck in a cul-de-sac and can't seem to get our way out of.  Why?  Some say, that is life so deal with it.  Others say it is all our fault as humans.  But Genesis seems to suggest that the tension is part of being fully alive.  David Lose points out that the part of our brain activated in flight or fight is also one of creativity.  We need some of the brain's fear chemicals to be creativity.  That totally explains why cramming for a test in college worked.  But, live too long in that we are now seeing in children who have spent their lives afraid of being shot or in constant anxiety can leave us hurt.  That totally explains why cramming did NOT work the fourth, fifth, sixth...eventually I did learn.

So, fear is both good and bad.  So is having knowledge.  Paul says, "Even if I have all knowledge and can even move mountains...but have not love...I am nothing."  That is a radical statement.  We don't act like it in the world.  We don't live that way.  Yet, that is what our faith calls us to.  Power, knowledge, and success get us so far...but we still may feel empty.  It is something else that makes us whole.  And it is not the fig leaves we sew together.  At the end of Genesis 3 God clothes Adam and Eve.  God clothes Adam and Eve...not with judgement or smiting...but with bands of love and grace that still sustain us and blesses us.  

I pray as you live in the tension, you will sense the clothing of God's presence surrounding you, giving you peace, and you sense more than a trace of God's grace.