New Growth

Isaiah 43:18-26

You know the old story about the man who bought a mule, right? Well, it seems that one day there was a mule for sale, cheap! So, Sam thought, “why not? I could use some help around the far.” So, Sam bought the mule. Now, the seller told him that the mule understood English, so, he would do whatever he was ordered to do. The problem was, however, when Sam tried to get the mule to go forward and he just stood there. Sam couldn’t get him to move, at all, nothing. So, he turned to the original owner and said, “You lied to me, this animal doesn’t understand a word I say.” Well, the seller looked at the mule, looked at Sam, and then picked up a two-by-four and hit the mule right in the head with it. Then he said, “go forward.” The mule did it. Sam was shocked and said, “why on earth did you do that?” The seller looked at the mule, and he looked at Sam, then he smiled and said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do something dramatic to get their attention.”

We are creatures of habit.  We like things to remain the same, stable, predictable, under control.  And when a change is introduced, I think we’re like that old mule sometimes, we need a wake-up call. Because as you already know, life is constantly changing. It’s anything but predictable.  And anybody who’s ever tried to control the events and circumstances of their life can tell you that it’s a prescription for insanity!  You know what they say, “If you want to hear God laugh, just share your plans.”

Now, sometimes our discomfort with change leads us to make some irrational decisions. I read this week that one of the ways that we deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life in the past-tense. By that, the author meant we look back with great fondness to a time when everything was just way we liked it.  And we hold onto that ideal image as a sort of security blanket when life in the present becomes overwhelming.  Of course, if we really went back to that point in time, we’d realize that not everything was just like we remembered it. But in retrospect, it’s easy to see the past with rose-colored glasses.

Now, the same thing is true of our faith.  We can get stuck in the past when it comes to our faith.  It may be a past part of our life, or it may be a distant past, like biblical times.  Either way, we tend to idealize the past, thinking that it must have been easier to have faith in that time.  But when we do that, I wonder if our faith doesn’t get stuck in the past.  I wonder if we have a hard time really bringing our faith into the present time with all its challenges.

I think that was at least a part of what was going on with the people of Israel in our lessons for today.  The people addressed by the prophet Isaiah may have been on their way back from exile in Babylon, which was a long and dangerous journey through a desolate wilderness.  These days, we can romanticize the idea of going “into the wild,” but in biblical times the wilderness was a place that was feared.  It was a place of unknown dangers and scarce food and water.  You could die in the wilderness.[i] The prophet called them to take their faith in the God who brought the people of the past safely out of Egypt and bring that faith with them on their present journey through the wilderness.  The same God who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” promised to do something brand new:  he would make a “way in the wilderness”.  God promised to bring them safely through their dangerous journey, and the prophet called them to bring their faith in the God of the past into the present situation that they feared so much.[ii]

Now, it’s also possible, perhaps even more likely, that the prophet was addressing people who had already made the journey back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, what they found was an abandoned city in ruins.  Having made their dangerous journey, they found themselves in even more danger.  The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city.  Rather than the safety of home, they found themselves under attack from enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence.[iii]

But what does all this have to do with Lent?

Well, in this Season of Introspection, on the journey inward, and as we attempt to create a time and a space to just be with God daily, a deep and lasting “change” is required. And that change of mind and heart isn’t possible unless we, like the Israelites of old, bring our faith in the God into the present situations of our lives and in our world. And, I know, this kind of connecting our historical faith with the issues of this world can be complicated, confusing, maybe even a little bit scary. But we cannot let fear overcome us. Do you know that phrase Jesus uses more than any other in the gospels? “Fear not.” And there’s a good reason for that. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear paralyses us while faith frees us. Fear keeps us in the darkness while faith exposes us to the Light. And fear wants to keep the status quo, at any cost, while faith invites us to step into the future.

My friends, we cannot deny that there are many challenges that we face in our world today. Global climate change, violence, on-going wars and genocide just to name a few. And the loudest voices in our society continue spew racially-charged and hate-filled rhetoric, dividing this nation rather than attempting to do the hard work of uniting us. And there’s our personal situations: loneliness, illness, grieving a loss or disappointment. All of these things can cause us to recoil in fear and dream of past days when things were different. And believe me, I can understand that. But I also believe with every fabric of my being, that God loves each of us. And in that love, there is hope, there is healing and restoration; there is new growth.

I would like to leave you today with a very hope-filled poem that I shared with the As Time Goes By group this week. It’s called Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

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

My friends, as we continue on this journey may you come to realize that you too have a place in the “family of all things”. And that you’re beloved, cherished, and interconnected with all of life by and through a loving Creator. And no matter what challenges you may face, no matter what change is coming down the pike, you don’t have to face them alone. You don’t have to be mired in fear, because in the end, “the world offers itself to your imagination.” In my mind, that’s finally the nature of faith; that’s finally the nature of God.

God is doing a new thing. Let us grow and be glad in it!

Amen and amen.

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[i] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 73.

[ii] Ibid. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 72, where he warns that a “retreat from the hostile unknown to the comfort of the familiar,” if it becomes a “permanent posture, becomes spiritual escapism.”

[iii] Alan Brehm Present-Tense Faith (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2013

[iv] Wild Geese from Dream Work published by Atlantic Monthly Press © Mary Oliver

 

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees. All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects, and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom. By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.

…from Sleeping in The Forest by Mary Oliver © Mary Oliver

Natural Rhythms

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 – Lent 3

Welcome to spring! Yes, spring, or as we like to refer to it “mud season” has begun. Now, spring is awesome because it represents a re-birth of sorts. Soon, the snow will melt away, the crocuses will poke through the tired earth, and the woods will begin its annual transformation from the dull, lifelessness of winter, as it adorns itself with the green cast of new life. And, for me anyway, one of the special things about living in the Northwoods is experiencing these seasonal changes; becoming a part of these “natural rhythms.”

Now, in addition to the changing seasons, our lives are also subject to natural rhythms. This concept was not lost on the author of today’ text. Called Qua-hell-et in the original Hebrew, and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes) in Greek, this wise person understood time quite differently from the way we often do in Western culture. You see, he wrote during a historical period that fell immediately after the Babylonian Exile, an event that taught the Hebrew people that the human experience wasn’t necessarily a walk in the park. It was a time of great fear, suffering, and change that was beyond their control.

Now, some see Ecclesiastes as the ultimate cynic. And maybe there’s some truth to that. Thirty-eight times throughout the course of this book the wisdom writer says, “All is vanity.” A little cynical I must admit, but I think I would call him more of a realist than a cynic, a practical theologian who refused to look at life through rose-colored glasses.

And we see this reflected in today’s reading. It catalogs the various seasons of life, right? Twenty-eight of them to be exact, arranged in sharp contrast to one another. And this list rings so true because it’s an undeniable part of our human existence. You see, the Author of Ecclesiastes understood that the universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. [i] And, this is key, that inner logic is not liner.

Maybe think of it like this. The existence of this planet with all of its diversity of life, from the first single-celled-ameba to the beautiful flora and fauna we enjoy today, have been evolving and changing for billions of years. But if we try to view creation through a liner lens, in other words, as a straight line with a beginning, middle, and end, then our entire existence might seem like a single grain of sand on an endless beach. But if we choose to view time as cyclical, like Ecclesiastes, like the endless changing of the seasons, then the nature of being begins to make more sense. We are all a part of the fabric of the universe, and when the season is right, we are born into this life. We live and then, someday, all of us will die, becoming a part of the universe again. “We are made from the dust of the earth,” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us, “and to it is to dust that we will return.”

Now, I realize that this is getting a bit philosophical. So, let’s move into the practical. Ecclesiastes, later in chapter 3, contends that one should not waste time and energy railing against life; instead, he advises that the best thing we can do is to be happy and enjoy this time on earth for as long as we can. To my ear, that’s good theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, it’s a wise choice to be happy and to look for joy.

How? Well, I believe that joy: real, deep, lasting happiness is found in propagating and maintaining meaningful relationships. It begins with strong relationships with friends and family and expands to include a compassionate and a loving faith community that finds joy through fellowship within the congregation and by extending an extravagant welcome to others beyond the walls of the sanctuary. We can also find happiness in service to others, in the preservation and conservation of the environment; whenever we think of the other before self. And, finally, we can find true joy by deepening our spiritual connection with God.

Ah, you didn’t think I abandoned our Lenten Spiritual journey, did you? Of course not. There’s a great letting go of self, of stress, and of trying to do-it-all-on-our-own that comes with an intensifying relationship with the Sacred. And, there’s a deep abiding peace that indwells our being when give up worrying about those things we can’t control and instead, enjoy the gifts, the blessings, that God has given us.

And this connects us to Ecclesiastes’ other prescription for life. He set up these pairings of life events, these “complementary opposites” to borrow a term of Taoism, in such a way that the first set, “a time to be born and a time to die,” serve as the bookends to all the rest. What do I mean? Well, we’re born and while we are living this existence, we encounter all of these sets of opposing emotions and challenges and callings. We all experience, for example, the time to mourn, the time to dance, the time to gather in, and the time to let go.

My friends, God created time. God set the “natural rhythm” of reality; a rhythm that transcends this world and this life; a natural rhythm that is enhanced and understood, if even a tiny bit, by creating a deep, thoughtful, and life-long connection with our Creator. And as we continue on the journey of introspection that Lent has set us upon, and as spring once again blossoms around us and within our hearts, my prayer is that each of us will attempt to move ourselves a little closer to the reality of the Divine presence of God, in both our lives and to all the ends of the universe.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Joanna Adams Should There Be A Clock in the Sanctuary? (www.Day1.org) 2010

First Clearing

Joel 2:12-17

Each and every one of us know something about the wilderness; what it means to be lost from time to time, what it is to grieve, what it means to wander aimlessly in the darkness. And, like I said last week, the wilderness, and wandering through it from time to time, is an important part of the journey. But I think it’s easy to say that none of us want to stay there forever; none us wants to grieve endlessly or suffer needlessly.

So, bearing this in mind, as we begin the second week of our Lenten journey, I think it’s important to look for a way out of the wilderness. And we can do this by selecting a practice to well help us to begin to clear a space for discernment, for healing; for new growth and renewal. This week is about clearing a space to sit in the presence of the Sacred.

It’s kinda like starting a new garden. As the snow continues to melt, and spring eventually replaces winter, I intend to expand my garden… again. And like last spring, there’s a lot of work to be done. I must remove the grass, till the soil, add compost, and build a fence. And all of these things need to be finished within a short window of time if I am to plant anything in that new garden space. Now, it’s been my experience that my plans for garden expansion have often been too lofty. I am, well let’s say, lee-than-patient when it come to my gardening projects. In reality, the process of expanding my garden will begin this spring, but I probably won’t see any produce until a year from this fall. A new garden takes patients and discipline.

Now, this concept can also be applied to Lent. Lent inspires patients and discipline. For generations we have been asked to “give something up” for Lent. Chocolate or pop or some other vice is given up as a sign of discipline, of faithfulness to God, and the beginning of the process of clearing one’s heart and mind in order to repent. And while that’s not necessary a bad thing, in recent years I think we’ve come to understand that “taking something on” is perhaps a more effective way to honor this sense of introspection that Lent inspires. When we “take on” some sort of spiritual discipline it challenges us to think or feel in a new way, rather than just miss something we enjoy for six weeks.

So, what does “taking-on a discipline” look like? Well, in the study that this sermon series is based upon, there are six suggested Lenten practices. The first of these practices is Daily Prayer or Meditation. This is one I’ve referred to before. Daily prayer or meditation asks us to set aside some time each day and clear a space to sit quietly in the presence of God. Some people like to read a devotional or Scripture passages, while others prefer to simply be still. Whatever works for you!

Now, the second practice isn’t unrelated to the prayer and meditation: it’s a Media Fast. A media fast involves abstaining from watching TV, listening to music, or even reading for a prescribed amount of time. Say, 7 to 9 pm each day. In my mind, this clears the space to sit in the presence of God.

Remember now, the invitation here is to choose one or perhaps two of these practices, not to try and master them all. The third alternative is Reflective Walking. This practice, like the first two, provides you with the opportunity to intentionally spend time with God, except this third practice involves motion, movement, and a connection with nature.

The fourth choice is Art. Painting, sculpting, drawing, and pottery are just a few examples. If the arts interest you, consider using your set-aside time to engage in a creative activity. By understanding creativity as a channel for God’s on-going act of creation, you’re letting God’s energy flow into the world through your art.

The fifth suggest practice is Journaling. A daily practice of writing can also help you engage God more deeply. Journaling as a spiritual practice may involve simply writing your thoughts and feeling out or perhaps it may take the form of writing letters or prayers to God.

Now, the final suggested spiritual practice falls a bit outside the box: Community Service. If your spiritual life leads you to engage with your community in a new or innovative way, this is perhaps the path your Lenten discipline is calling you to take.

So, there you go, six suggestions for cultivating a deeper relationship with God, perhaps you can think of others? There are no limits here and no wrong answers, only your desire to move closer to the Divine; to emerge from the wilderness and begin to clear a space for God in your everyday life.

But what does all this have to do with the Prophet Joel?

Well, remember Joel said that God wants us “to return with all our hearts, – with fasting, weeping, and sorrow.” In other words, we’re invited to look for God in our presence with more than just our eyes or our minds; we are to return to God with all of our being, warts and all, weeping or sad, and we are asked to do this through spiritual practices. That’s what the “fasting” part is all about.

But Joel doesn’t stop there, God says, “tear your hearts and not your clothing.” Remember now, in that day when a person was grieving or lamenting, they would tear an article of clothing that they were wearing as a sign of their despair. But Joel is reminding us that there is something beyond lament, beyond the pain and suffering; and that something is God’s grace.

Joel goes on to say, “God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” And I don’t know about you, but I need to find a way to be in the presence of God’s grace every day of my life! I constantly stand in need of God’s compassion and patients, love and forgiveness. And I need to symbolically “tear my heart” everyday so that it may become open to God’s Justice for all people, no matter what country they come from, or what language they speak, or who they choose to love, or what religion they choose to practice; and I need to open my heart every day to God’s Environmental Justice, the responsibility of humanity for the care for this earth, it’s forests and animals, it’s air and water and land. And finally, I need to slow down, and open my heart to the presence of God so that it may be exposed to the Peace that Paul says, surpassed all understanding.”

Do you see what I’m saying here? The tearing of one’s heart, the opening of one’s spirit to the Divine presence, goes beyond my meditation time in my living room. Being the presence of God naturally instills within us the desire and the will and the courage to practice God’s ways of Justice and accept God’s deep abiding peace. This is the blessing that Joel says, “God will lead behind.”

My prayer for all of us as we continue this journey, is that we will find and share God’s blessing in whatever form that blessing may take.

May it be so. Amen & amen.

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Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005) pgs. 107-108

Exploring the Wilderness

A Clearing Season: An Introspective Approach to Lent

Luke 4:1-13 First Sunday of Lent

Lent begins in the Wilderness.

A couple of years ago, when we first moved to our current house, I couldn’t wait to explore the woods that surrounded our new home. So, on a beautiful spring day, I set out through the national forest to see what I could see. I immersed myself in the beauty of the wilderness that is my backyard. And I was happy! That is, until I realized that I was not really sure how to get back home. I wasn’t lost, no self-respecting man would ever admit being lost; I was simply “turned-around”. And since I didn’t think to bring a compass, finding my way out was a challenge. I followed a couple of old trails, but as I passed the same rock the third time, I decided to institute a new plan of attack. I looked up. By following the sun, I was able to determine east from west and eventually I did come out on Birchwood Road, a mile or so from where I began, but, in the end, the lost was found.

Now, the narrative that we have from Luke’s Gospel today, also has something to say about what we might find when we “explore the wilderness”; not a literal wilderness, like my experience in the Chequamegon, but a wilderness of the soul; a wilderness of self.

Now, if our wilderness experience in any way resembles that of Jesus, then this passage tells us that the wilderness, those places of discomfort and chaos that arise in our lives, are important and valuable and are not to be overlooked. We all tend, I think, to attempt to separate ourselves from discomfort or chaos. And I’m right there with ya. I love logic, routine, and calmness. There are certainly times when an emotional or even a physical distance from chaos is necessary.  But that being said, this wilderness text challenges us to try a different approach. It encourages us to sit in the uncomfortable, chaotic places for as long as possible. Why? Well, because it’s only when we confront the discomfort, when we acknowledge our confusion, and when we recognize the chaos swirling around us, that we can begin to deal with it.  It’s only in the recognition of our dis-ease, that we can begin heal; that we can begin to move back to a place of harmony and balance. “Denial,” as they say, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

And that’s where we find ourselves today. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we’re asked, or perhaps “led by the Spirit” to enter whatever “wilderness” is plaguing us. Now, finding these wilderness places is not all that difficult when we have the courage to look. The best way to find them actually, is to set aside some time, find a space free from distractions, and then sit quietly with God. The very act of sitting quietly can bring whatever wilderness you need to experience to the forefront.[I]

Granted, sometimes finding quiet can be a challenge. In my attempt to begin morning meditation this past Thursday, I was met with a groomed and ready for school Manny who wanted to watch You Tube. Not to mention phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook Messenger all “dinging” on my phone. The dog needed to go out, the goats and chickens wanted to be fed… My friends, the stuff of life can be a stumbling block to find our wilderness moments.

But it’s not impossible. Time and again, we see Jesus seek-out a secluded place, a place like the wilderness in today’s text, in order to face his challenges and temptations. And his temptations were much-the-same as the temptations we face in our lives. And upon closer observation, we see that the three temptations presented to Jesus all fall into the same category: putting self-need before the needs of others.

I mean, think about these three promises; the promise of a perpetually full belly, of absolute power, and of freedom from all harm. If I had these things my life would be awesome. But, what about the life of the person from whom the bread was taken? What about the vulnerable, voiceless person whose power has been usurped for my pleasure? How about those who remain in harms way in order to guarantee my safety?  Do you see what I’m driving at here? There’s a cause and effect in everything we do, in every decision we make. Our time in the wilderness is meant to help us to discern the outcomes of our decisions and to weigh the consequences.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I saw a news story this past week that broke my heart. It was about the children of the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world because of an on-going civil war. With over 620,000 internally displaced people and 570,000 refugees, one in five Central Africans has fled conflict, leaving both home and land behind. In 2019, an estimated 2.9 million people, including 1.5 million children, two out of every three children in the country, will require humanitarian assistance. Of the 1.9 million people without access to safe water, 950,000 are children, and basic water and sanitation standards are not being met in many sites for displaced persons. Less than half of all children are immunized. In 2019, an estimated 38,000 children under 5 years will suffer from severe acute malnutrition.[ii] And these statistics say nothing about the abduction of young men who are then forced to fight in the war against their will or anything about the daily rape of young girls. This is a real humanitarian crisis.

But I was given a spark of hope by this story because they also presented some success that UNICEF has had in this region. They’ve recently been able, with the help of the United Nations, to distribute these ready-made food packets to children. They taste like peanut butter but are very high in nutrition. The news story ended by showing several children who earlier in the spot were on the brink of starvation but were now responsive and even smiling.

I share this story with you today, because as I reflect upon the wilderness experience that this news story led me through, I can’t help but think about all the distractions, the temptations that blind us to such great suffering.  It’s easy to turn-a-blind eye to places like the Central Africa Republic or South Sudan or Yemen or Syria or any of the other places where people, children, are suffering. It’s far more difficult, I think, to allow ourselves to “suffer-with” those who suffer.

Perhaps the greatest temptation to be avoided is apathy?

As we continue on this Lenten journey and as we explore the wilderness of our minds and lives, my prayer is that we all find our way out, not by using a compass, but by thinking of the other before self.  If all of us could do that, this world would be a little better and it would become more just place for all people.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005) pgs. 13-26

[ii] UNICEF Official Website (www.unicef.org)