Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday Reflection

This is the outline of the sermon I shared today, Ash Wednesday. As one might expect, this outline does not contain exactly the words that were spoken, but it's pretty close.

***   ***   ***
So, we’ve come to this time of the church year once again
when we’re invited to remember our mortality

Some of you may remember, or know,
that I enjoy Instagram
that photo-sharing social medium
but I use Instagram not so much as a social media platform
not so much to connect with friends
instead, I use it to see beauty
I follow people who post photo journalism
remarkable poetry
and especially, people who post beautiful photos of things outside

so, I follow people who are much better skiers, mountaineers, cyclists, and poets
than I am or ever will be

One of these people I follow, Amanda Batty,
posted something yesterday
that gets to the heart of the message of Ash Wednesday
this idea that you are dust, and you shall return to dust

the deal is, Amanda Batty is a mountain bike racer
and a little over seven months ago, she crashed really hard
and as I understand it, had to have her foot reconstructed
she’s only just in the past week or so gotten back on a bike

she wrote the following (which I’ve edited for content and for language)

I hate feeling vulnerable. I always have. I hate feeling out of control and I hate feeling slow.
I hate feeling broken and less than 100% capable and strong, and it makes me mad
because I still have this absurd mental and emotional attachment to being
to being unbreakable ... To being immortal
[It’s hard to] realize that I’m not exceptional or special or different —
just like everyone else, I too break and scar and will eventually die
[someone told her] “You’re quick to be defensive
because you think people see what you aren’t anymore.”

here’s the thing
Amanda Batty realized the thing that's true about each one of us
we live an embodied life
life in a body that's beautiful, and resilient, and also fragile

we are created from the dust of the earth
molded and shaped by our creator
who looks at us and proclaims us good

but still, as many of you know, sometimes we break
and need to take time to heal
sometimes it seems like different parts wear out
(many of you know, it’s happening to me … I’m learning how to need to wear glasses)
sometimes we experience betrayal through our bodies
and we realize that what we had once been able to do
we likely won’t ever again

and make no mistake
these betrayals that we experience in our bodies
they’re different from physical death only in degree
the few dozen sprained ankles I endured
while not crippling, still I experienced a little death
because I though I was kept from fullness of life
the learning how to remember to bring glasses along
while not catastrophic, still I experience a little death
because I can’t quite see like I once did

but it’s not just our physicality
also, we experience death in the emotional and psychological and spiritual aspects of our life
consider when someone beloved to you is sick or injured
that’s a little death you experience, even as your beloved does as well

whether it’s a stroke or a scratch
a heartbreak or a bad haircut
death, in varying degrees, surrounds us

and then, after all the little deaths
eventually, someday, we’ll just die
our bodies will quit working
it’s humbling
realizing that though we are created good by our God
still we’re not invincible, we’re not immortal
we will die
every single one of us
you are dust, and to dust you shall return

yet, though we shall indeed die,
the promise Christ embodies for us
is the promise that death does not have the final word
that Christ entered into our life and our death,
and has defeated any power death has over us

Oh, death, where is your sting?
Oh, grave, where is your victory? Paul writes

so we begin this season of Lent
acknowledging our mortality
anticipating the promise that we’ll celebrate as the church at Easter
that on the other side of death, God promises us new life

In the name of Christ our Savior. Amen. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Advent Midweek Reflection, Week Three - Creating a Home

This is the outline of the reflection I shared the most recent Advent midweek Vespers service. As one might expect, this outline does not contain exactly the words that were spoken, but it's pretty close.

***   ***   ***

Before the reflection, the following was read:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
     ~ Hebrews 3:3-4

***   ***   ***

It’s a shell, an empty space,
walls, rooms, floors,
a kitchen that might have prepared
food in the past
but it was unfamiliar food that was cooked,
for someone else to eat

It's a shell, an empty space
         until we move in
that day, there's Chinese take-out, eaten on the floor
a still-packed moving box
serving as the table

someone once told me
(she was in a military family,
and moved every couple years for a while)
that the first thing she did in a new shell, a new empty space
was to hang pictures on the walls
doing so provided some immediate familiarity
she told me
I wondered, also,
if that served to transfer some memories
a sense that the empty shell
might become home before long

the last time I moved
we brought the bikes & books,
furniture and photos
that had been part of life in the previous house
and of course the giant, heavy,
awkward, hand-me-down swingset
to set up in the back yard

the new place was an empty shell, and became home
only when the swingset got swung on
(and climbed on)
when familiar books were read
while sitting on familiar furniture
when we cooked familiar food
in an unfamiliar kitchen

because despite the familiarity of the things
despite how full the rooms were with the stuff
the house was still an empty shell

it only became a home
when the memories started to be made
when laughter echoed from the walls
when sorrows sought and found consolation
when family and community gathered
when love was shared

see, a house is simply an empty shell
until a home is created

and home is the place, or condition
or community
or family
or reality
in which we feel cared for
and loved 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Advent Midweek Reflection, Week Two - Home as an Adult

This is the outline of the reflection I shared at last week's Advent midweek Vespers service. As one might expect, this outline does not contain exactly the words that were spoken, but it's pretty close.

***   ***   ***

Before the reflection, the following was read:

Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.
     ~ Hebrews 3:3-4

***   ***   ***

nine hundred square feet, give or take

an infant, a toddler, a mom, and a dad
moved in to nine hundred square feet, give or take

apparently, at that time, I was an adult
and I moved into an adult home

here’s what I (think I) know

when I was old enough to be an adult
I knew that I could decide
that I could have Captain Crunch for breakfast
and a Snickers bar for dinner

I realized that I was actually an adult
when I found myself knowing where to find the
main water shut-off & the breaker box
when I found myself buying toilet paper & butter
before I needed it

At least those are some of the markers

there are others that, in my experience
create an adult home

with the help of my older child
I added approximately 25 square feet
to the 900 we were living in

well, a toddler and I built a 5 foot by 5 foot playhouse
out in the back yard
a playhouse that moved with us
out of the 900 square feet
into a much larger house
into a parsonage, originally built to house five kids and two parents
in which we had way more room than we’d imagined
we added to that house,
a trampoline
family friends
and neighborhood kids

thing is, though,
nine hundred square feet isn’t too small
and five thousand square feet isn’t too big
for a couple kids and their dad to
trade tickles
cook and eat together
read books … so many books
decorate for Christmas
and experience the joy of the excitement
that wells up when the other returns home

Then, when we moved again
I realized that 900 square feet isn't home
that 5000 square feet isn't home

Home, instead, is what happens in the interactions
maybe within those square feet, maybe not

Home is the place, or condition
or community
or family
or reality
in which we feel cared for
and loved. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Advent Midweek Reflection, Week One - Childhood Home

This is the outline of the reflection I shared at last week's Advent midweek Vespers service. As one might expect, this outline does not contain exactly the words that were spoken, but it's pretty close.

Before the reflection, the following was read.

***   ***   ***

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”       ~ Psalm 91:1-2

My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.      ~ Isaiah 32:18

***   ***   ***

We all kinda wanna go home
      especially around Christmastime

I remember my childhood home

there was a front door on our house
            that we never used
      the front door opened on to a living room
            that we hardly ever used

 we spent time in the sun porch
      the tv room
            and the kitchen

in the summer, the door between the sun porch
            and the car port
      was almost always open
            and the screen door constantly banged shut
                  as we blurred the boundary between inside and out

in winter, the wood burning stove
            on the sun porch
      is where we’d spend much of our time
            huddled around the warmth

eventually, though, us kids had to go to bed
      in our bedroom,
            far from the burning wood in the stove
      on the other end of a drafty house
            that wasn’t well insulated

I’d run as fast as I could manage
      I'd launch myself into the bed
            creating a cocoon
                  by tucking the blankets under my feet & under my shoulders
                        leaving as little space around me as possible

      I’d stay perfectly still
            until my body heat took the edge off the cold


and I was home
      and I felt safe and secure


I went back years later
            drove a borrowed car out the two lane road
                  turned on the single lane tarmac
      turned again on the two-track gravel
                  (one track for the passenger side wheels, one for the wheels on the driver’s side)
            and stopped close enough to talk to the owners
                  but far enough away to not be a threat

I told them I’d grown up there
      they invited me to take a walk around

driving away, I realized that place wasn't home

Home is the place, or condition
      or community
            or family
                 or reality
      in which we feel cared for
                  and loved.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Lent Midweek Series, Week Five

Before Holy Week starts tomorrow, I figure I should post the final of the five Lent Midweek reflections that I wrote. If you want more information about what this series was all about, take a look at the first post in the series.


The song for the final week was my favorite, and was the genesis of this series, Sorrow words and music by Greg Gaffin).


When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

     - John 11:17-27 


Sorrow. This song speaks some to the reality that we all live with … namely, the reality that every person at some point in life has to deal with sorrow, and suffering, and misery - and the truth that at times each one of us feels like we’ve been trampled down.

Did you ever do that thought exercise? Maybe in college philosophy class, or maybe in high school civics, or maybe just sitting around late at night with friends - the thought exercise that involves dreaming about how the world could be perfect, or at least much better than it is now.

What’d you come up with? Personal accountability? Stronger churches? Better access to natural foods? More cohesive neighborhoods? More support from other people? More individual responsibility? People being nicer to each other?

I don’t have the definitive foolproof answer to how we make the world a better place. You don’t either. Some people think they do, though. I wonder if that isn’t the purpose of politics. Do politicians, at least the best ones, get into that field because they believe that if their opinions were implemented as public policy, then the world would be a better and more perfect place?

Honestly, I hope so - in fact, I hope that’s why each of us does the work that we do, so that the world could be a better and more perfect place.

The unfortunate truth, though, is that despite all our thought experiments and all our politics and all our opinions, we won’t be able to make the world a perfect place … because (as you know) we all sin and fall short of the Glory of God.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying. Perhaps if every living soul was upright and strong, our world would be much better. Maybe if we no longer trampled one another down, or if all of the soldiers in all of the armies simply refused to kill each other any more, then we would enjoy a greater degree of happiness, a greater degree of joy.

So I say, let’s give it a try.

Because even though we all know it will fail, it’s worth trying. And maybe, just maybe, our world will end up just a little better for the trying.

But in the end, we’ll never rid the world of sorrow. You know this, because you live in the world and recognize that it’s broken and sinful - and the only way the sorrow that permeates the world will dissipate, as the song notes, is when the only true Messiah rescues us from ourselves.

Which, as Martha hears, is where we meet Christ - who is the Resurrection and the Life, the Messiah who rescues us from ourselves.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lent Midweek Series, Week Four

Last night was the fifth and final of this year's Lenten midweek series - where I sing a song that may well belong more on the radio than in church, and where I publish a link to the original artist performing the song plus a reflection for people to read. If you want more background, see this post.

However, since I've only published three so far on this blog, here's the fourth. I'll get around to putting the other one up in a day or two.


The song for Week Four (March 14) was Someone To You (Words and Music by Michael Nelson, Sam Hollander, and Grant Michaels)


[Jesus said] "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

     - John 10:11-18


One of our deepest longings, as human beings, is the longing for a place to belong. No matter who we are, we tend to want to find a place where we can belong; a place where we can know other people, and where we can be known by those we care about.

Middle school lunchrooms are the quintessential and stereotypical place where we see that longing to belong embodied. The popular kids at one table, the nerds at the table across the room, the theater cast and the football team and the marching band each with their own places. Then there’s that one kid, either the new kid or the one no one likes, sitting all alone.

We might roll our eyes at or make fun of any one of the groups, but I don’t think we tend to feel sorry for them - because each person in each group has a place to belong. The kid who’s alone, though, we do feel sorry for, because each one of us knows what it feels like to feel alone. Whether we have any legitimate reason to have ever felt like that, we know what it is to feel alone - and we know it’s a pretty terrible feeling.

So we can all relate to the yearning expressed in this song. Yeah, it’s a love song - a song of longing on the part of one person to know and be known by another person, which seems to be at the center of our being.

But it could also be sung by someone who simply longs for community, even if it is in the midst of a middle school lunchroom.

And it could be sung by someone who joins a gang because they were ignored by their parents growing up.

Or even by someone who has a great job, but doesn’t really like their coworkers and doesn’t have any friends … so goes to work in the morning, goes home in the evening, makes lots of money, and never really talks with anyone else.

Those of you who are old enough may remember the television show Cheers. If you do, you’ll remember that there was a cast of regulars, each of whom had their designated place to be - either at the bar, behind the bar, or moving between the bar and the tables at the edge of the show.

One beautiful thing about that show is that ever single person was accepted as they were. It’s not as if each of them didn’t have any faults - they certainly did, just like we do. But their faults didn’t keep them from having a place to belong. And the theme song, Where Everybody Knows Your Name, speaks to this longing (and was embodied in the show to the extent that whenever that one character walked in the door, everyone called out, “Norm”).

This is what we might find in the very best of Christian community - a place where we can be known, where we can be called by name, and where we are accepted as we are. We find this in the best of Christian community, because the best of Christian community mirrors God’s relationship with us. Because the Good Shepherd knows us, calls us by name, and accepts us exactly as we are.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lent Midweek Series Week Three

And here's the third of this year's Lenten midweek series - where I sing a song that may well belong more on the radio than in church. And where I publish a link to the original artist performing the song plus a reflection for people to read. If you want more background, see this post.


The song for Week Three (March 7) was Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel (Lyrics & Music by Paul Simon)


[Jesus said] "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

     - John 10:1-10


It doesn’t take much time living in the world to begin to recognize that the world in which we live is sometimes dangerous. Toddlers, for instance, as they’re learning to move from crawling to walking, often figure out the hard way that there are tables above their heads. Elementary school children sometimes like to climb and swing and spin around really fast on the playground - they like to learn to ride bicycles or skis or skateboards … only to discover that gravity might not always be super friendly. Teenagers who are learning what romantic love feels like discover that sometimes the feeling isn’t mutual. And for the rest of us … taxes.

The world in which we live is sometimes dangerous, or painful, or fraught with trouble that we have to navigate.

One of the yearnings of many of us is reflected in this song. It’s obviously a love song, at least a love song of sorts. It’s a song that speaks to that desire most of us have to be connected in a deep and meaningful way to someone else, or to a community.

It’s a song of reassurance, a reminder that while there might be perils or pain that we have to navigate in this life, the lucky among us don’t have to navigate those alone.

But there’s more to it than simply reassurance for one person. Because most of us long for someone to support us when we face troubles - for someone to provide for us some relief from the struggle, someone to act for us like a bridge which allows us to bypass the troubled water that we’d have to pass through otherwise.

At the same time, most of us long to be the one supporting someone else. This is how we express and experience love for one another. We commit to easing the struggle with the things that are hard in this life … we act for each other like a bridge that allows easier passage over troubled water.

And this even, perhaps obviously, extends beyond simply a relationship between two people. For instance, members of a community (like a church congregation) can provide the same support for each other. Think about the simple act of bringing a casserole to, for instance, a woman whose husband just died. A bridge over troubled water. Or folks who show up to sit at the bedside of someone who’s in the hospital so that their family can go home to get some familiar food and take a shower and sleep in their own bed. A bridge over troubled water. Or the cards and emails and phone calls that happen between members of a church community when one family looks distraught in worship, or hasn’t shown up to worship for a while. A bridge over troubled water.

But there’s more to it than simply reassurance for one person; there’s more to it than simply a community supporting each other. Because each of these is an expression of love. And, as you’re well aware, we only love each other because God first loves us.

I wonder if this is what it means to have life, and to have it in abundance … to experience the love of God in Christ Jesus through knowing the love of our neighbor.