Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Group: The Return of the Prodigal Son - The Younger Son Pt 1

The Younger Son Leaves

  • Nouwen discussion of the younger son leaving is more heartbreaking than we might imagine it based on the way this parable is told in Sunday School. It is much darker than the cautionary tale thrown around in youth group to warn teenagers away from partying. The piece that I find lost in the the cultural translation of this parable is the son’s request is tantamount to wishing the death of his father. Nouwen’s request is that we allow ourselves to be drawn into the story of the son and to recognize our own figure being embraced by the Father.

  • Nouwen describes his search for love in faraway places as the greatest tragedy of his life. (39) In fact, he identifies this search for love and acceptance in the faraway land as his point of connection with the younger son. In his journey he identifies the voices of others as the most damaging pieces of his journey because those voices drowned out the voice of God in his life.  But there were many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something”...Those same voices are not unfamiliar to me. They are always there and, always, they reach into those inner places where I question my own goodness and doubt my self-worth. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it through determined efforts and hard work. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved, and they keep pushing me to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift. I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire. (40) Do you relate to Nouwen, is there a particular voice that sends you on a journey into the far country? Can you name that “voice” and what triggers it for you?

  • Nouwen makes overt comparisons to this parable with the story of Jesus. In The Father’s embrace of The Prodigal, Nouwen imagines The Prodigal to find an eternal peace resting against The Father while he bestows an everlasting blessing on his child: You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. Nouwen pulls the words straight from the story of the baptism of Jesus. How does it feel to hear Nouwen draw a direct comparison between you, The Prodigal, to Jesus as we are both named God’s Beloved? Do you accept the direct comparison Nouwen is making?

  • In contrast to Nouwen’s description of addiction is the acceptance of The Father whose arm are perpetually outstretched. Can you imagine that image? What does it mean to you? Does anything change for you and in you as you meditate on that image? 

  • What else is speaking to your heart and mind in this reading?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Group: The Return of the Prodigal Son - The Introduction

Return of the Prodigal Son
The Introduction

I’ve spent sometime reading through the introduction of The Return of the Prodigal Son this week. I will confess to you that I am not a student of art. I like art and there are works of art that have captured my imagination or reached out and grabbed hold of my spirit. These occasions are not reflective of the norm for me. They are occasional occurrences. I have never been as captivated by a work of art as Nouwen has been of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. His love of the painting has inspired me. I want to go visit the painting in person. Is anyone else is up for a Field Trip to St. Petersburg? I want to see the painting but I think they might be the one place on earth that has more snow than we do.

In my core, I long to be captivated in the way Nouwen describes. I long to have his type of deep, spiritual experience. Cognitively, I know that I cannot simply replicate his settings to achieve my own spiritual experience, I must go on my own journey. I must open my own heart and allow myself to be captivated in a way that is authentic to who I am and where I am in my own life.

Isn’t this one of Nouwen’s points early in the book? That when we mine other people and their life experiences for nugget encounters with the divine, we miss the full picture, we miss out on our own journey.

For many years, I tried to get a glimpse of God by looking carefully at the varieties of human experience: loneliness and love, sorrow and joy, resentment and gratitude, war and peace. I sought to understand the ups and downs of the human soul, to discern there a hunger and thirst that only a God whose name is Love could satisfy. I tried to discover the lasting beyond the passing, the eternal beyond the temporal, the perfect love beyond all paralyzing fears, and the divine consolation beyond the desolation of human anguish and agony. I tried constantly to point beyond the mortal quality of our existence to a presence larger, deeper, wider, and more beautiful than we can imagine, and speak about the presence as a presence that can already now be seen, heard and touched by those who are willing to believe….I have been led to an inner place where I had not been before. It is a place within me where God has chosen to dwell. It is the place where I am held safe in the embrace of an all-loving Father who calls me by name and says, “You are my beloved son, on you my favor rests.” It is the place where I can taste the joy and the peace that are not of this world. (Nouwen, 16)  

I suppose that is my invitation: To open yourself up to your own spiritual experience where you are captivated by the God of the Wander, the Brother of the Beloved, and the Spirit of Journey.

Thoughts while Readings:

  • Nouwen mentions that when looking at the painting, he was struck by the fact that he had always played the role of observer. By the time he was writing these words, he had spent a great deal of his life as an active, devoted, faithful Christian; yet he comments that he’d spent most of his life as an observer. (p12) He came to the startling realization that he preferred the role because it was the “safer” role. Being the observer allowed him a greater sense of control. I wonder what it was like for him? What is it like to realize that your life of faith has been marked by being more of an observer than a participant?
    Certainly there were many hours of prayer, many days and months of retreats, and countless conversations with spiritual directors, but I had never fully given up the role of bystander. Even though there has been in me a lifelong desire to be an insider looking out, I nevertheless kept choosing over and over again the position of the outsider looking in. Sometimes this looking-in was a curious looking-in, sometimes a jealous looking-in, sometimes an anxious looking-in, and, once in awhile, even a loving looking-in. But giving up the somewhat safe position of the critical observer seemed like a great leap into totally unknown territory. I so much wanted to keep some control over my spiritual journey, to remain able to predict at least a part of the outcome, that relinquishing the security of the observer for the vulnerability of the returning son seemed close to impossible. (Nouwen, 12-13)
    Do you recognize yourself reflected in Nouwen’s story? Do you see yourself as a different character? What do you think it would be like to open yourself up to experiencing the Divine Embrace differently?
  • Jesus says, Anyone who loves me will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him. (John 14:23) Nouwen is taken with the idea that he is God’s home. It is an interesting concept to ponder, God dwells in us. What does that mean to you? What does it mean to you on days the days when you do not particularly like yourself?
  • What else is speaking to your heart and mind in this reading?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Blessing of Faith Together

Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Proper 24a

More and more I am convinced that we miss something vital to our faith relationships when we insist on approaching God one by one. Our individual relationships with God are very important, but in and of themselves, they do not make us the body of Christ. It is our life together that makes us Christ’s body, a mysterious organism that is much more than a collection of individuals who gather in the same place every week. When we come together to worship, we form a new being with a name and an address, which has its own life and reputation. We call this church - not the building but the people - this is a phenomenon that has been around much longer than any of us and much longer than this building where we gather. When we say we belong to this church, we are not pledging allegiance to 37 W Main street but we are saying that we belong to one another, we have a commitment to share in faith with one another.

Faith is one of those common Christian words that is often thrown around. But, you should not let me go any further without first saying what I mean when I say the word faith. You might hear a person say, Have a little faith and what they mean is things will work out. You also might hear a person say, Bessie is so faithful and what they mean is that Bessie is someone you can depend on. I believe faith is the stubbornly relentless belief that God is present with us and in us and is an acting presence in the world among us and through us. The book of Hebrews tells us that Faith is being sure of that which we might only dare to hope for. It goes on to paint us pictures of those who are giants in faith. Men and women who believed impossible things. I do not know about you but it can be intimidating to read their stories as we wonder to ourselves if our faith is even in the same stratosphere. Sometimes the prospect of having faith can cause us to feel like Alice in Wonderland staring at the White Queen in disbelief as she proclaims that there are times she has believed up to six impossible things before breakfast.

Have you ever experienced a time when you felt like Alice and everything seemed impossible and your faith felt very small? It doesn’t help when we look at people of faith and compare ourselves to them in a specific moment without considering the span of their life and faith.

This morning’s text offers a very different picture of Moses. This morning we meet up with Moses as he boldly makes requests of God - requests that take a great deal of faith. He tells God, that the Israelites need  God’s presence to go with them and God agrees. Then, he courageously asks to see God. It is a request that I might be hesitant to make of God. But not Moses, Show me your glory, he says. In one of the most amazing images in Old Testament scripture, God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him with His hand while He passes by. When it is safe, God allows Moses to view the backside of His Glory as it passes by.  Moses’s faith leads him to ask the question that you or I might never dare to ask. But, Moses did not start out in that place. Moses started out with his knees knocking together at the burning bush as he stuttered and sputtered excuses as quickly as they flew into his mind. This is not to say that Moses did not have any faith at all. Scripture tells us that his mother, Jochebed, taught him about the God of his people- the God of Abraham, the God’s love and life. When Moses’ faith felt small, God sent him Aaron and Miriam to him to believe along side him and remind him that he was not alone.

It is a strange thing to realize you are surrounded by those who support you in faith even while your faith seems small and you feel alone or adrift.

    One of my oldest friends is my friend Jessica from college. We met our first year of school and we lived together the next two years. We have seen one another through family deaths, job uncertainties, cross-country moves, boyfriends and break ups, and marriage. Her little girl was born the week after Josiah. We have shared many aspects of life together. My Junior year of college, Jessica struggled with depression especially after a terrible break up with the person she thought she might marry as well as quite a bit of relationship tension with her mother. Throughout the year, Jessi became more and more withdrawn. One night as we talked she told me that she struggled to see that God was present in her life. She knew she needed to have faith but she was not quite sure how to do that anymore. In a moment of what I can only call Holy Spirit inspiration, I told her, borrow my faith. Until you are able, I will have faith for you. I will have faith with you.

    I think that is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, Paul says. When he says imitators, Paul is saying that they share faith with one another...they believe with each other and for each other. The people of this church were experiencing persecution and facing death. As they struggled to have faith in the face of persecution, I imagine they felt alone I imagine their faith felt small. I imagined they doubted whether they even had faith in the first place. If I were in their midst, I might look at the persistent persecution and wonder if my faith was lacking. Paul sends them encouragement in his letter. He reminds them that they are not alone in their persecution, they are not forgotten by God. He reminds them that he, Silvanus, and Timothy have faith with them. Paul’s message is that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep trusting relationship with one another. These relationships have depth when they are experienced along with God in community with God’s people. The imitation of one another, the sharing of faith, becomes an outgrowth of this strong community relationship.

    We often talk about our relationship with God as if it is a solo endeavor. We often talk about church as if it is a place where individuals come so that they can individually worship God with the company of familiar people who are also individually worshipping God. But, what if it is more. What if church isn’t just the place where we come to be fed and sheltered, but it is also where we come to stand firm with those who need the same things from us. What if, what makes us a church is the fact that we share in faith with one another. What if our worship is not only the songs we sing and the prayers we pray but what if our worship is our lives shared together as we encourage one another, believe alongside one another and even believe for one another. And maybe, what makes us the church is our decisions not to just believe alongside the person we sit next in coffee hour. Maybe what makes us the church is the decision to believe alongside the people we do not sit next to and are not always quite sure how to ask about what is going on in their lives. Maybe what makes us the church is our decision to believe alongside the chairs left empty because even though we do not see anyone sitting in them now, they represent people who need someone else to believe for them...they need others to be their church.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Hard Blessing

Matthew 18:21-35

    As children, my sister and I got into the occasional quarrel. You know, over big things like who was looking at whom as we rode in the car, who crossed over into the pre-determined buffer zone in the back seat, who “borrowed” the other’s curling iron and did not return it. These disagreements were generally *not* characterized by respectful discussions where each person was heard, validated and a mutual decision was reached. There might have been a few instances when names were called, hair was pulled, and other shenanigans happened. On these occasions, the referee...ummm parent on duty would require apologies from one or both of us. These loving, heartfelt apologies (sarcasm)  were something to the effect of, sorry - without elaboration and as little eye contact as possible. One problem with these reconciliation meetings is that they usually occurred again and again. As in, “She always uses my stuff ….*insert litany of examples here* The problem was that forgiveness never really happened. Instead, we each lived with our own tally boards of wrongs the other committed.

    What does forgiveness mean to you? How do you forgive others? Does forgiveness require an apology where the person who has wronged us owns up to their slight? If that is the case, is forgiveness a passive response that is contingent upon the one in the wrong being the first to act?

    Today’s gospel reading invites us into a conversation between Peter and Jesus. You all know I love Peter, precisely because he’s not perfect. I look at Peter and think, phew there is a little room for me. Today is no exception. Peter sets up a conversation in which he expects to shine. He asks Jesus a question and has already figured out the perfect answer. He is sure this is a slam dunk move since Jesus has this habit of throwing questions back to the audience. So he asks, Jesus if a person sins against me, how often should I forgive?  

It is a pius question. How often should I forgive? When was the last time the necessary amount of forgiveness crossed your mind when you were in a position to do some forgiving? For most of us, the question is, Will I forgive you? Am I ready to forgive you? Our questions are rarely about how much or how often we should forgive.

    But Peter is ready with his answer. Should I forgive them 7 times? Doesn’t he sound good. Jesus, last week Andrew ate the very last brownie when he knew I was saving it for my dessert but I forgave him 7 times. Also, in this context, the audience would have known that 7 was a code number for completion. God created the world in 6 days and on the 7th, God rested. Yes, Peter, we see what you’ve done there. You threw in some snazzy theological knowledge to impress Jesus.

    What Peter did not see coming was that Jesus was not impressed. In fact he corrected Peter’s notion of forgiveness to expand it to 77 times. Nice try Petey, not seven times. You will forgive 77 times.

77? Is Jesus kidding? Is he having some fun with his good buddy Peter? How many of you are like me and secretly think 7 times is already overgenerous. Especially when there are times when forgiving once can seem too hard. 77 times? We do not just forgive to completion but we forgive beyond completion,  we forgive again and again and again. We forgive when we are wounded. We forgive when we are frustrated. We forgive when the person who has wronged us does not seem to realize or care that they have caused us harm in the first place.

    As I have pondered Jesus’ words for us this week...some of his most challenging, which is really saying something - I have found myself wondering how many of us have absorbed any of these beliefs about forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness means excusing or overlooking the harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay.
  • Forgiveness means allowing those who have hurt us to persist in their behavior
  • Forgiveness requires forgetting what happened
  • Forgiveness is something we can do at will, and always all at once

    If we have absorbed any of these distorted beliefs about forgiveness, it can come as both a shock and a relief to learn that such ideas were not what Jesus had in mind as he talked to Peter. Jesus expects us to forgive, that much is clear but Jesus does not lay upon us the burdens we lay upon ourselves - burdens that can render this exceedingly difficult Spiritual Practice impossible. The heart of forgiveness is not to be found in excusing harm or allowing it to go unchecked, It is to be found, rather, in choosing to say that although our wounds will change us, we will not allow them to forever define us.

    In the 1950’s six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white school by herself, walking there every day with two federal escorts in front of her and two more behind her while an angry crowd of white adults hurled abuses on her little head as she passed by. Child psychiatrist Robert Coles, noticed her lips were moving as she walked, and asked her, in her home, what she was saying. She said she was praying, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Her parents hoped, by giving her that prayer, she could shield her mind and heart, and walk unscathed through her daily hell.

    Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in a South African prison, said, Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. When asked about his jailers, he responded that forgiving them was a choice to set himself free. he could leave those guards there in the prison instead of remembering them always by nursing resentment. It was not long after his release, before his election, when he came to Boston and danced a little freedom dance for all of us to see.

    At the end of yoga one afternoon, my instructor offered this statement for consideration and meditation: Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. Forgiveness does not ask us to forget the wrong done to us but instead to resist the ways it seeks to get its poisonous hooks in us. Forgiveness asks us to acknowledge and reckon with the damage so that we will not live forever in its grip.

    There are times when we find the grace to forgive quickly. Other times the grace to forgive takes a long time. And, so forgiveness requires practice. It takes choosing to work at it. And in real forgiveness, in true forgiveness, we might have to chip away at it again and again and again...maybe 77 times.

    The truth is that forgiveness might be the hardest blessing we will ever offer
It might be the hardest blessing we will ever receive.
As with any difficult practice, it is important to ask not only for the strength we will  need for it, but also for the grace: the grace that will, as we continue to practice, begin to shimmer through our wounds, drawing us toward the healing and freedom we could hardly have imagined at the outset.

As we consider forgiveness:
Is there some forgiveness you are being asked to practice?
Are there any ideas about forgiveness that you might need to release - or take on to enter this practice more fully?
What will it take to ask not only for the strength but also the grace you need to forgive another...or yourself?

Standing on the Banks of the Red Sea

Hi All,

This sermon is from 9/14. I am sorry I am tardy posting it on the blog.


Exodus 14:19-31

For my parent’s 20th wedding anniversary, they went to Lake Louise. It was a trip my mother had always wanted to take. They stayed in the castle and had a wonderful time. While on this trip, my dad talked my mother into going on the Lake Louise sightseeing gondola. Apparently there are two options, The open air chair and the enclosed gondola. They chose the latter. This attraction is popular because it takes you from God’s green earth, 7000 feet up to the summit of Mt. Whitehorn. As both my dad and the internet have told me, the views are breathtaking. Truly, I am not certain what possessed my mother when she agreed to take this gondola trip up the mountain because she is afraid of heights. Terrified. This is not a deep, dark secret – it is a well known fact. This is also not they type of fear where heights make her uncomfortable, this is my mother sitting in the gondola with her eyes closed as tight as possible, gripping the edge of her chair hyperventilating all the way up the mountain. To this day, I have not idea how she got down the mountain.

            Fear is a reality we all must deal with in some way or another. A quick internet search will list out common and uncommon phobias. Of course there are the things we have all heart of like Arachnophobia, fear of spiders or Agoraphobia, fear of situations in which escape is difficult…crowded spaces. There are also fears that are just strange: Barophobia, the fear of gravity, and a few whose technical name I will not even attempt to pronounce, they include: a fear of colors, a fear of clocks, a fear of paper, a fear of the figure 8, or a fear of teenagers. (Perhaps that last one is not so strange – I should probably ask the parents of teenagers…)

            While some fears seem irrational, others stem from a perfectly rational place. During World War II people who were Jewish had a legitimate reason to fear for their lives. Those who live in war torn areas like Afghanistan surely experience a fear of what could happen with little or no warning. FDR famously remarked that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Rhetorically, his point served its purpose and has since been quoted endlessly, most of us know that there are things in the world that do cause fear in the hearts of human beings.[1]

            This morning’s lectionary text tells us the famous story of Israel’s final deliverance from their oppression in Egypt. It seems that no sooner had this multitude of people gathered up all their worldly possessions and waved goodbye to Egypt and slavery with a one way ticket to The Promised Land that Pharaoh and his army were in hot pursuit of them. Perhaps they hoped their significant head start would allow them to outrun Pharaoh and his whole army - until they reached the Red Sea, a large body of water which, apparently, did not have a bridge. Suddenly, they realized they were trapped. The Red Sea was the barrier in front of them and Pharaoh’s army was closing in. They were afraid, as you might imagine. What were they to do? How were they to escape? As they looked around, there simply was not a solution. So they turned to Moses, the brains of the operation, and cried out in frustration. Why did you bring us here to die? It was bad in Egypt but why did you promise us freedom, make us pack up everything and bring us here? Were there just not enough graves in Egypt?

            Like the children of Israel, sometimes our fears have merit. There are times when our fears are real and it seems that we are stuck with no solution as the thing we fear comes nearer and nearer. How, worries the single mother, will I provide for her children when I cannot find work? How, worries the elderly man, will I care for my wife as her health fails when I can barely care for myself? How, worries the little church, will we continue to keep our doors open when we struggle to pay our bills? When we are looking at what seems impossible, when the only solutions we can imagine seem to fall hopelessly short, it is natural to be afraid.

            Last week, a few of our community fears bubbled up to the surface. Hopefully, I have enough of your permission and trust to talk about them in this space this morning. It is difficult to be a small church community with an older building and meet financial obligations. It is frustrating to feel as if we are constantly working and still barely making it. It is terrifying to look into an unknown future and wonder what will our community be in 3 years, or 5 years, or 10 years. Will we even exist?

            Let me offer you a little perspective – The Christian Church is declining in the US. Every year 5,000 churches close their doors – this number includes long-term established churches as well as church plants. 4 years ago, before we came to this community, we met with a few people in the UCC and they told us about this community. You were described as a small congregation who struggles financially but who are incredibly and unfathomably tenacious. This community is known as ‘the little church who could’.  Peter told us that by cold hard statistics, the church probably should have closed its doors many years earlier. This community literally defies odds.

            As we are currently facing another difficult period in our history, please allow me to offer my thoughts…our thoughts about what makes this community different, special.

1)   We genuinely care about one another. My friends sometimes we struggle with one another. All the best families do. Seriously, show me a family who genuinely loves one another that does not have its share of differences. We have disagreements, we have conflicts, we have different understandings on how to function or proceed. These are normal. We will not always be in agreement. We will not always start from the same page. But, (And this is a large and very important but) this community has true care and affection for one another. You have no idea how rare, how special this truly is. We have been part of churches where there was truly disdain…hatred between different groups in the community. In those communities some actually rooted for the failure, or departure of those with whom they disagreed. Our disagreements are better characterized as family squabbles. When the chips are down, every person in this community care deeply about what happens to the others.
2)   Our congregation is fairly diverse in age. A while back, I was talking to several pastors whose jaws dropped when I talked about the diversity in age at Christian Union. Both of their churches were 95% comprised of people over the age of 70 who were either married or widowed. Think about the people who come. Our church is made up of people who are different ages and of different relationship statuses. We are not all the same. We are not all in the same life place. This is one of our strengths.

When I meet with other pastors, I brag on us. (I know bragging is bad) We are honestly a unique church family. We are our greatest strength.

But the question remains, what is our next step, what is the step after that and the one after that? How do we escape the thing we are afraid of? Are we destined for it to always be nipping at our heels?

            As the children of Israel stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptians closing in, they cried out to Moses in fear and desperation. And Moses said, “Do not be afraid, stand still and see the deliverance of the Lord.” Then he reiterated his point saying. It is the “Lord who will fight for you and you only have to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

            As they stood, watching and waiting, God’s angel and the pillar of the cloud cut off the Egyptian’s advances and darkness came upon the sky. (Exodus 14:19-20) And, as the story goes, God parted the sea and the Israelites were able to cross to safety on dry ground. For the Israelites, their fearfulness of the Egyptians was relieved and replaced with a fear of the Lord. This fear is not one that trembles, cringes or cowers. In the fear of the Lord, they were awe-struck and overwhelmed by the sense of wonder at what God had done. 

            I understand if you are looking at me and thinking, “That was great for them, but, Amy, how often does the Red Sea part?” “What is a real answer for the real world?” When they stood at the Red Sea, the Israelites found salvation by a means they never expected and probably did not even imagine. Moses reminded them to have faith…to believe God had an answer that they could not see.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that faith is being confident about things we scarcely dare to hope for. The writer of Hebrews reminds us just like the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, just like Moses, just like the judges and the prophets, and just like Jesus, we, too, live by faith. We are surrounded by the witness of those who gone before us who have also lived by faith and they say to us, keep going, keep believing, keep living by faith.
            That’s the thing about standing at the Red Sea. There just isn’t a visible bridge and the lack of a bridge can feel overwhelming and discouraging. Even though we have been here before, we cannot cross in exactly the same place as we did last time. All the things we have done in the past to survive, may not be what carries us into the future this time. But, we have each other. Our community is our greatest strength. As a community, God is present with us. As a community, God works through us. As a whole community we can accomplish great things. We stand at the Red Sea and look for the place to cross, but we look together. We pray together, we brainstorm for new ideas together. We listen to each other. We bear with one another. We forgive one another. We trust one another.  We each offer our ideas and our strengths because they are gifts from God and they have a place in this community. We pray and pray and pray some more. We listen to the Spirit of God who speaks to our hearts and speaks to us through one another. And, when we cross our Red Sea, we cross together.

[1] Geoff McElroy, Desert Scribblings

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Past Two (and a half) Weeks: a reflection based on 1 John 3 (by Josh)

Preached at Christian Union, August 17 2014

The past few weeks have been nothing like I’ve ever experienced, as you all can imagine, and as many of you can relate. Personally speaking, just to be honest to my church family here, I have experienced the highest joys and hopes and have dreamed the deepest dreams, and I have felt great darkness, great fear, frustration. …The first week of Joey’s life was a whirlwind of energy, as the adrenaline of becoming a new father was like a drug to me, I didn’t need more than an hour or two of sleep a night, I was mesmerized by this fascinating little man that wasn’t here and was suddenly here, and didn’t care about much else. The second week, fatigue began to hit me hard; now in the third week, all those crazy emotions have risen to the surface, and so right now, if I’m honest, I’ve been having trouble parsing through it all—which is something I’m not really used to. 

So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if what follows here isn’t a neat and tidy, systematic sermon with a clear point or two--- because right now where I am, I feel like the most authentic thing that I can offer you all, my church family, are the raw thoughts I have that are giving me hope right now--- as I’ve been reflecting on the third chapter of 1st John the past couple of weeks…. Because, every New Testament author has their own “pet phrases” and key ideas, and for the writer John, one of his favorites is to see the church as the “children of God.” – Really it’s another way to say “family of God” which is how we often speak of church, but “children” has a certain connotation, that understandably, I find appealing right now! – And so I’ll reflect here… and as my thoughts revolve around Joey Dae, so will the thoughts I offer. But I hope that as you listen for the next few minutes, you’ll reflect along with me, and consider for yourselves what  these words and ideas offer you and your family, on this day. 

…. So here we go…

1 John 3:1-2

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

This is the Good News of Jesus’ Mission for John: Join in heart and mind to Christ, and become part of this new family. We became a new family, a new kind of family, at midnight on July 31st, 2014—the culmination of nine months of persistent nausea, 15 weeks of bedrest…not to mention that little thing called labor. Of course it isn’t all resolved at that point like it is in the movies; there is hardly a breath to take between our former life and the start of our new one with our beloved child. Yet thankfully at our hospital we had 15 minutes. Immediately after emerging, the nurse quickly wiped Joey up and placed him, stomach down, onto Amy’s chest and stomach. And his wild, uncomprehending eyes that darted about, immersed with light for the first time, his little lungs filled with those first breaths of air and the cries that go with them… within a minute he settled again, feeling Amy’s warmth, her skin, her heartbeat that only a few minutes prior was the metronome of his existence. And I placed my hand on his back, to feel for the first time his soft, frail skin. People have described that feeling of becoming a parent to me, none of it does it justice. It’s not an elation--- for me at least, it was a feeling beyond feeling. All I know, is that in that moment, I disappeared from my own eyes; he was all my eyes could see--- him and Amy, who struggled so mightily to bring him into the world, so that I could meet him. That moment will always remain with me… a sublime moment that came to an end, perhaps appropriately, with Joey deciding to take his first bathroom break, even as he continue to lay there so peacefully. We’re hoping that this isn’t an ominous sign of things to come.

What could Joey know in those first moments? We are born social creatures; it’s how we are made, I believe. We need each other. Never is that more clear than in the first moments of life… Joey’s eyes sought his mother’s, looking for her voice, long muffled to his ears, how heard clearly for the first time. We are called Children of God; like Joey, how much of this do we truly comprehend? Can we even begin to understand this? John seems to question this. We are spiritually, typically, like infants, struggling to see and hear. In a world full of noises and blinding lights, distractions and preoccupations, God can be easy to miss, as we’ve talked about many many times before here. Yet if we listen we can hear, perhaps especially in those moments where we feel most vulnerable, cold or afraid, or simply unknowing… the voice we recognize deep in our bones, as the voice of Unconditional Love and Acceptance, of a loving Mother who never tires or fatigues of looking into our eyes, letting us rest our heads on her chest. 

See what love this Father, this Mother, has for us. We don’t always, but sometimes we feel like newborns, frail and confused. Thankfully the “knowing” God, that John talks about, isn’t about head knowledge. Despite what the bookstores say, you can’t read a book or study your way into being a good spouse, or a good parent or good child. Likewise we can’t study our way into loving God. But in our most feeble, vulnerable moments, to simply rest our heads, to look towards the faint sound of grace—well this is the place to start, and is the place to which we can always return, and in it, we can re-discover the resilience of God’s love, that is a Given, simply by our sheer, beautiful existence, that cannot be undone.

8Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 

The devil, and demons, are personifications of the evil in our world… that is, it is how the ancient, and especially medieval and pre-modern, church communities imagined spiritual evil. And while there may not be a literal creature with red horns and a pitchfork that tricks people into signing their souls away, spiritual evil is a reality. There are “powers” at work in our world, however you want to understand them—and our modern biases against talk of angels and demons shouldn’t dissuade our acknowledgment of this. We see Powers, in the world--- whenever peaceful protests and otherwise-loving people become fearful and angry mobs, or whenever police officers charged with upholding peace act out of fear and anger against those they're charged to protect---whenever inertia lulls affluent yet otherwise-loving people of faith into stagnation and disinterest about the worldwide poor and oppressed, or when otherwise-loving people become members of Gestapos and KKKs and Al Qaedas and Boko Harams. (All people who by the way were once infants, all of whom remain children of God.).... Powers also rear their ugly heads in our psyches, in our souls, in our old wounds that scab over, but years later are ripped back open… our deeply personal, irrational, anxieties, fears, loneliness, that those external Powers often exploit for their own cause. 

As the great patriarch of the church Augustine would say, all of these things, these inner and outer voices can turn our hearts, which are made to love and be loved, towards ourselves and towards self-preservation or dominance, as was the case in that ancient story of Cain and Abel---- or, sometimes, we lose sight of love altogether, as was clearly the case of Robin Williams, whose recent passing has personally struck me very hard. Timothy Radcliffe is a well-known spiritual writer, and I had the pleasure of being his teaching assistant a few weeks ago while he taught a one-week night course at BC--- and he spoke of Christian love as both Eros and Agape--- that is, both an intimacy, and a self-giving. Both a giving, AND receiving. In love we both delight in the other, and also allow the other to exist on their own terms, to not dominate or control them. Another spiritual writer I like, Miroslav Volf, talks about it as both an embrace, AND a letting go… followed by a re-opening of the arms to start the cycle again, to take the risk to open oneself up, but to have the patience to wait for the other to receive you. If we ONLY give--- we debase ourselves… If we ONLY receive, we are only using each other for our own sakes. In either case, we either misplace love, or forget love, and the Powers consume us. It’s a delicate balance. 

Right after our 15 minute-old Joey gave Amy his own messy salutation, I got to cut his cord. I tried to see this as an act of love, in the way I could show love in that moment, as much as Amy holding him to her skin was. We were embracing him, and also, letting him go. He couldn’t stay in the womb forever; to try to keep him there, safe as he may have seemed, would have not been truly loving. He now needed space to think, see, discover, and dream for himself. To begin the long journey of becoming. 

It’s not an easy way to think…. It’s even harder to think this way once you become a parent, I’ve discovered… because infants are wholly dependent upon you, and can only begin to “understand” your love, on an almost primal level, by your presence, your touch, your responsiveness. And as I mentioned before, especially in the beginning, your desire to give your whole self, for the sake of your child, seems almost, dare I say, easy. (That is, until your body and mind remind you of your limits.) To protect forever, to coddle, to shelter against all germs, boogymen, traffic, against all pain, all difficulty, to hope and pray for an easy and contented life--- this all makes a lot of sense to me suddenly. 

But even as we embrace, we know that cutting cords will also be a part of this journey we’re on with him. For otherwise, what we claim is our love for him, will actually be our anxiety, our fears, in disguise. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt the kind of crippling anxiety that I’ve felt in the past few weeks. Helping Amy through these past few months, being with her through her labor, all seemed like cake, in comparison to having to let doctors examine Joey, even to let others hold him…. To learn to be okay with leaving him during the day so that I can do my work. This is me learning how to love him—even now, I have to let go, even as I continue to embrace him too.

God loves us, and holds us, but does not possess us, he does not cling to us out of his anxiety, but allows us space and freedom to be, to grow. Living according to this love, is to do “right”, to be “righteous,” --- to love one another. This is the way of the Community of God that Jesus formed, in which glimpses of heaven appear on earth.

One final, short reflection:
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action…
 23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

This ‘laying down’ is the self-giving agape love that marks the Beloved Community, the Family of God, we as God’s children. Children of Love. For John, our journey as Children of God into spiritual adulthood begins with our clinging to God, as he says, “abiding” with him, even in our unknowing, our limited vision for what God is up to in us, and in the world. Over time, as we engage in the great dance of Love with God, who embraces and lets go, we become God-shaped lovers, who loves as God loves, with compassion and utter lack of possessiveness. 

This journey, this growing into who we were made to be, isn’t a straightforward one. It isn’t always pretty. And all the while good and evil powers and people are at work, either pulling us towards or away from growth. But it’s an illusion to think that once we “grow up,” we stop growing. The journey Joey has begun, will never be complete. To fancy ourselves as “grown”, fully matured, with all the answers in life and faith, is actually to atrophy. Like a muscle that, once it stop being used, begins to shrink and lose strength, so our souls, our capacities to love, can shrink. And so how do we continue to boldly face the journey? 

The way I am working on right now, as a new parent, is to engage in the prayer, the spiritual practice, of trying my best to see every moment of life as a gift. In the fleeting moments we have with Joey in his newborn stage, every moment is a gift. For life is infused with God’s grace. Everything is given, we possess nothing. The great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls this God’s gratuitousness. 

Watching Joey sleep, hearing him coo, feeling him snuggle into our arms--- it’s pretty easy to see the gift there.  But the 2am feedings? The seemingly insatiable wails? Diaper changes? … during which Joey has a penchant to constantly kick alternately with both legs, full force? --- (He’s gonna be a soccer star. Or a karate champion, not sure which.) The gift might seem a little harder to find. And yet it’s there! My boy is telling me what he feels and wants. He can’t put it into words yet, so he communicates however he can—lungs, hands, feet. He’s telling me what’s wrong, he’s putting his trust in me to solve his problems. I’m probably gonna long for these days when he’s 15 and giving me the silent treatment. --- Every moment is a gift. 

Some moments of life are, of course, even harder—even seemingly impossible—to find grace. We know tragedy and heartbreak in our own lives. We know tragedy and despair in our world—in Gaza, in Honduras and along the U.S./Mexican border. When people blame God for the evil actions of humans and the powers they helped create, or for natural disasters, we misunderstand how God wills and acts in our world; we box God into an image that conforms to our own limited imaginations. But God’s spirit, does WILL the good, constantly and steadily. And God is, as I like to say, in the redemption business. Just as in the cross, God took what appeared by all accounts to be the most horrifying end to Jesus and his Beloved Community, and redeemed that moment, as a moment of love at its most visible, a love that can even defeat death.

And so even suffering, even as it remains suffering, can also have threads of grace that carry us through the suffering into new hope. Precious children: let us love as God loves, not with words or speech, but in truth and action. For every moment is gift: in the Spirit of renewal he has given us, as we walk the road, as we journey the journey, as we abide. 

  • "The thing for which I would pray above all others, would be for ever to behold his face, for ever to lay my head upon his breast, for ever to know that I am his, for ever to dwell with him." 
                            – C Spurgeon