Cast Into the Desert

This morning for the first time since my thyroid was removed, I put on a necklace. Every lent, since entering the ministry, I have made it part of my lenten practice to wear a crucifix. But since my surgery last April, I have not been able to wear even the most delicate of chains around my neck. The scar, while it healed so well, remains tender to even the lightest of touches and if the truth is told my heart remains tender too.

So with trepidation I unclasped the chain
placed the links around my neck
reclasp the hook

All day, I felt the weight, a pulling, a tickling, a distraction from the pain in my throat. A reminder.

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I don’t like to complain about or think about what I have been through. We joke about it all, Nathan and I, how my body seems to be allegeric to itself, how I have run through all the “removable” body parts, how we have to try out the surgical wing at every hospital nearby.

I probably do complain about it more than I should since in the last 13 years, it seems I have spent more time waiting for doctors to diagnose me, a surgery to happen or recovering from a surgery. But most days when I am tired of the pain, of preserving, of complaining within my own head, of wondering about the journey I have had to walk I come back to these verses from Mark 1: 11-12

 

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness.

Not that I would ever compare myself to Jesus, or my humble journey to his, but I find strength in these verses. The Beloved, the One who is claimed as God’s Son, with whom God is well pleased, does not quite catch his breath after he is claimed before God has sent him out into the wilderness.

My call to ministry happened when I was young and passionate. After I answered the call, after I was affirmed, and claimed, and wrapped in the warm glow of God’s pride, I have felt pushed out into the wilderness. I cannot control my health. A ruptured appendix, endometriosis and rupturing fibroid cysts that eventually lead to a hysterectomy, a gallbladder that stopped functioning, a thyroid that one day seemed fine and the next had a two massive nodules that could possibly be cancerous, and finally a sore throat that has last for over a year and a half which should have gone away with the removal of my tonsils but which has not.

There is a certain shame in being in the desert. Days spent on the couch. Meals brought to the door. Prayers, countless prayers, having to be asked for time and time and time again. Tears that you cry alone in the shower over yet another frustrating visit with a doctor who can’t tell you why yet another thing is wrong. The financial devastation of the thousands and thousands of dollars that copays leave you paying for years after, the monthly reminder of your body’s failure. The disappointment in your children when you just can’t, just don’t have the energy to play with them, do the things with them. The feeling of letting down the very people you are called to serve and serve with.

The only way you get through the desert is to remember that you are beloved. The gift of lent to me is to look down at that small still reminder of what Jesus did for us and to remember that my shame, my desert, my worst days, my weakest weakness’ are nothing compared to being one of God’s beloved. I keep pressing on, doing today what I can do, knowing that the desert does not last forever and that in all things, even in these things, God redeems.

The journey of Ashes is a Call Deeper

Right about now…7:12ish PM on February 18th, I ought to be standing in the pulpit of Crewe UMC with a cross of ashes on my forehead to reflect on the words we should have just heard. My favorite words, the words I most often choose to say are “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.”

The call in Joel 2 to blow the trumpet call to the community for repentance.

12“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
14Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

As people of faith we are called to not only a pointing to the positive, speaking to hope, encouraging others (and ourselves along the way) but we are called to a life that is honest in all regards. The only way to return to God often is with fasting. With weeping. With mourning. With recognizing that we are far less the individuals than God desires us to be and that we can only be saved, not by our own heroic efforts but because God in his mercy and love has saved us. At some point we have to start with honesty about our own need for saving and the distance we really truly are from God because of our sin.

Along with the call to repentance, and I would argue equally important, Joel reminds us that God calls us not just to a right relation with Him, but His call is also a call to assemble.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.

Too often we are ashamed of being repentant. Ash Wednesday is a nice break, a socially acceptable way to acknowledge our bent towards sinning. But the trumpet that blows on Ash Wednesday demands more of us than a ten minute ritual. It demands a willingness to be honest with ourselves about the distance we have put between us and God because of our sins and also the truth that God is asking us to assemble and walk with others who have less, as much and sometimes more distance than us. The call is not that we would journey alone. Ashamed that we are repenting. Ashamed that our sins have carried us so far away. Ashamed that we are more dust and mortal than holy and sacred. The call is that we would return, together. That our witness would help others and that their witness would help us. That the conversations along the way would bring us clarity in our journey and that we would be able to help someone else from turning back. We are not made to journey alone.

That is what Ash Wednesday reminds us. That while we are dust and to dust we will return, God has given us an incredible gift. His love. His Son. His community.

#ThanksLiving2014 #Receive

Receive. This is a hard one today. At nine o’clock tonight, we arrived at Nathan’s grandparents house, received as we have been so many times before. But instead of the pure joy that receives us, we were received into a mix of joy that we are here, gratitude that we could come, and grief.

Tonight I would have liked to take a picture of our six year old curled up in her great-grandpa’s chair, where she has been received by him all her life. I would have a picture of Granny holding onto Nathan, or the arms of our Aunt that wrapped around me so tight.

In a season of thankfulness, I suppose we should think about receive in terms of the blessings we receive but I find myself being oddly thankful that we can receive each others grief and heartbreak and sorrow. To know that someone else is there to receive us when we are road weary and grief filled is a powerful gift.

One of the girls as we got out of the car, quietly said, “I am ready to be sad now”. Four men have defined their young lives: their daddy, their two grandfathers and Papa Llyod. I am glad that there was a house full of people to receive her sadness and to sit with her. I am glad that those same people will be there tomorrow to make her giggle and remind her she is blessed.

We cannot just receive what is commonly defined as blessing. God has prepared us with tear ducts and strong spirits to also receive sadness and sorrow and to find a gift. The blessings of a life remembered, the joy of knowing you have a place in a family that is easy to take for granted on the “blessed days”, the certain knowledge that God’s love is there to receive us when our time here on earth is over.

When we are willing to receive the fullness of life, not just the blessings but when we are willing to risk loving someone so much that it hurts when they are gone, we begin to have a small glimpse of how truly loved we are by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Receive life in its fullness and be blessed.

#ThanksLiving2014 #Abundance

So yesterday’s post on Abundance did not happen on time because we received a call that has us on the road back to Iowa.

As we are traveling today, I am thinking about abundance especially in conjunction with All Saints Sunday. When I think about abundance I think about the abundance of love that I have experienced in my life. Abundance for me is not the stuff we have accumulated (although with five daughters there is certainly a lot material abundance in our life!) rather it is the abundance of people, of opportunities, of beautiful moments shared.

Abundance is having a church member call simply to say “drive safely because you are a treasure to us”. Abundance is getting to share a Father’s Day dinner with your father, father-in-law, grandfather-in-law and husband, four men who are extravagant in their love. Abundance is a six year old who just has to have a snuggle. Or children in the back seat of a long sudden car ride who are singing “El Shaddai” at the top of their voices. Abundance is getting to celebrate the lives of those who have given so much, who have lived authentically and who have influenced your life in ways profound.

Abundance is knowing that the ability to travel, to be with family, to pay for meal after meal in resturants, to sleep in a hotel room is something that many people could not do but you can. It is the having of plenty of everything so you can be where you are most needed when you need to be there. I don’t know how to take a picture of abundance but if I could it would encompass the faces of the many people who have made my current reality possible.

#ThanksLiving 2014

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The Young Clergy Women’s project of which I am blessed to be a part has put out a “photo a day” Challenge for the month of November. Since I have failed horribly with taking pictures of words in the past I thought I would try spending a few minutes at the end of each day reflecting on the word and where it was visible. Today’s word is Gratitude.

I could give you a fairly good synopsis of my day starting with waking up to joyful children sounds instead of an alarm clock (at 8:30 none the less!) and moving moment by moment though my day for all the ways I saw and felt gratitude but I expect that would not be in the least bit edifying for anyone who might read this.

When I think of gratitude and frankly this day, which was nothing special in the grand scheme of days, I think of all the small moments where I saw beauty, where I felt love, where I experienced the wholeness that God longs for creation to have all the time.

“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew… Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful… and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”
~Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Today I saw gratitude in the faces of the people I love, heard it in deep thoughtful conversation with my 13 year old, smelled it in the chicken vegetable soup made by my mother’s loving hands, tasted it in a Reese’s Cup carefully chosen for me because its my favorite, touched it as my husband held me close. Gratitude is what fills my heart as I think of all the ways I was able to participate today in moments that make the world a little more hospitable to the beautiful things of God.

The Kingdom of God is like a pile of puzzle pieces

It was rainy day. We were sitting at our timeshare in Williamsburg, VA with nothing planned except enjoying each other. So we decided to break out a puzzle our eight year old has been wanting to do for awhile. Its a complicated one with pieces that are not exactly normal puzzle shapes. With 1500 peices, it is a doozy for an 8 year old so teamwork to get it done in two days was what it would take.

I have a deep love of puzzles. As a teenager, I would spend hours on my bedroom floor assembling any puzzle I could get my hands on. My grandfather taught me that you sort out all the edge pieces first and put them together, then you sort the pieces into like colors. When you do it this way you do not need the box cover to put the puzzle together. His advice was not to look at the whole picture but to look very carefully at the details of the piece you needed to find a match for. His wisdom was that very often the pieces that belong together do not look like they belong together if you are looking at the puzzle as a whole.

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Working on this puzzle as a family, made me realize that some are more gifted in seeing the details and putting them together than others. My eight year old, like her mother, can look at a pile of puzzle pieces and pull out just the one that is needed. My ten and twelve year olds threw their hands up in frustration because they just could not see the details in the shape of the piece, the minute variations in color and pattern. They would pick up a piece and try it over and over again only to have it go in a completely different part of the puzzle.

Leading a church to revival is much like putting together a puzzle. Leading a particular people to Christ is like matching puzzle pieces. The challenge for church leaders is that we do not get caught up in needing the big picture, the picture of what is going to be, but we spend time carefully considering the edges, the patterns and textures.

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At the Festival of Homiletics, one of the speakers suggested that we should continue to point out parables as a way of understanding God. The parable that came to me on that rainy day is this: The kingdom of God is like a puzzle without the box, its messy and chaotic and overwhelming at times. It calls us to patience and persistence. It demands we pay attention to tiny details: peoples lives and struggles, the churches history, the communities needs, the words of scripture, the hope of Christ which is found in the mundane.

The kingdom of God is like a puzzle, we can try to work it out alone but when we have help, the vision emerges faster and the burden of putting it together is filled with far more laughter and joy.

My eight year old and I discovered that we could put the puzzle together by ourselves very quickly. But we also discovered the joy of leaving the “easy” pieces for others to come along and add. It gave us more pleasure to hear squeals of excitement when the others came along and put in a piece that was waiting. The baby of the family put in the last two pieces (the only two she was able to fit together on her own), and we all rejoiced because the picture was beautiful; because the work was worth it; because we did not do it alone but helped each other along the way.

We have a pile of pieces in the church, locally and globally. We actually have a picture, a very clear picture, of what is supposed to emerge from a pile of believers and communities and opportunities that are very different from each other. The picture is that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

It is going to take all of us, conservative, liberal, and inbetween. All of us, those who believe women should preach the word of God and those who believe women should use their gifts only to support men. All of us, random, seemingly unrelated, pieces. The ones who love high church organ music and those whose souls resonate with loud rock music. The ones who love color and texture and those who love stone and flying buttresses. The sinners and the saints. The ones who are absolutely certain about what they believe and the ones who have more doubt than faith.

I hope we will not stop working together. I hope we will continue to sit beside each other, examine tiny details, the curves and colors of the pieces, remembering that it is not for our own glory we labor, but so that Christ will emerge with love and grace. We might be tempted to toss aside the pieces that don’t look like us, the ones whose shapes seem a little off and whose coloring is not quite right, but if we do we will find ourselves with holes in the picture when we run out of pieces.

At the Bedside of A Wounded Church

 

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Often time, when a church member is struggling with dying, hospice, the nurses or I as the pastor, will coach the family to offer love and forgiveness and give permission to their loved one. Many times I have sat at a bedside telling someone it is okay to no longer fight, to go quietly to the place that has been prepared for them. I have been at bedsides where the family cried and wept and wailed. Where they told their loved one that they cannot leave yet, that they will not be able to live without them, that surely God is not yet calling them home. I have been at other bedsides where the family lovingly and without prompting, tells the person they love that they will be okay without them, that they want them to be at peace.

I have seen very sick individuals who have fought against dying because they could not let go of the living. I have seen those who medically might have recovered go peacefully into death. Finally, I have seen those who are sure to die, recover and live on.

We cannot predict death. But as people of faith, we have to believe and live into resurrection.

We are a church in hospice with a self inflicted wound.

I am horrified as I watch what is happening to the United Methodist Church. Not because we are dying. Not because I am afraid that I am going to lose a church I love before I have had enough time with her. But because there are factions on both sides of the bed screaming, “YOU CAN’T LEAVE US!!! WE CAN’T SURVIVE WITHOUT YOU!”

I don’t understand how people on either side think we can possible divide something that is United. We are the UNITED Methodist Church. We are the church that took risks, having to send lay leaders because the gospel was spreading so fast that we didn’t have enough time to prepare and ordain preachers for all the communities who were hungry for God’s word. We are the church that very early on let women be among the group of those lay preachers (even though ordination for women was hard and rocky). We are the church that sends Korean and African American pastors to churches where racism was so entrenched that property deeds often stated that whites only could be members and if a member of another race was permitted the property would be returned to the gift giver.

We are United. More than anything, we are the denomination that found a way to bring together people. We brought together city and rural people with a shared vision of transforming the world. We are the denomination formed from other denominations.

I am standing at the death bed, whispering quietly to our church, “its okay. we will survive without you. we will thrive without you. you are not the gospel. you are not the salvation. you are not the hope of the world. if it is your time to go, go and know we will keep doing your work.”

I know and believe more than anything else death leads to resurrection. I am not sure the United Methodist Church will survive because we are so focused on one issue, one pain, one political stance that we are not living or proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and there are no churches that can survive without the Living Word of God at their center. We have forgotten our name. We have abandoned our rich history of doing what others said could not and should not be done so Christ can be lifted up above all.

I find myself with tears of grief and lose and hurt streaming down my face, trying patiently to hold in the screams that are building in me. I want to say to those who are focused on division, go…go away and do what God is calling you to do but do not call it United Methodist because it is not. I want to scream, “let our church have peace so that it can die and be raised to new life or so it can regain its strength to rise up and do what United Methodists have always done so well, transform the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I want to throw both sides out into the waiting room so that the church I love can hear me whisper, “its okay. you can go to the place God has prepared for you. we will not stop living or loving or following Jesus if you do. you are loved and your work will not stop with your death.”

Oh, I how I grieve. I will not go to the right or the left but will stay here, beside the church that has shaped and formed my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I do not think any good will come out of division and so I will stay United Methodist until that identity is no longer there to claim. Then I will turn, look to Christ, and follow Him from the death bed into the world, where His work is still waiting.