Back to the Beginning

Narrative Lectionary Reading: selections from Genesis 2 and 3, but I pulled from much of Genesis 1-3 for the dramatic readings

In the beginning
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.
Right then, love just WAS

In the beginning there was love and joy, there was Spirit and Word
In the beginning there was water
And the chaos of the water and darkness was not a satisfying place for love
Not exactly what Love had in mind.

So the Word spoke and the Spirit hovered
And the Creator laughed with joy to see order beginning to take shape
The water and the darkness gave way to Light
And the light was good

Some of the water went up above the dome of the sky
And that was good

And the waters still below the sky were gathered, revealing land
And the earth was good,
And so were all the plants that grew on this land between the seas and rivers and lakes and streams

And lights were placed in the sky to rule over night and day,
The waters of the seas began to roll and sway, pulled and pushed by the moon and the wind that still hovered near

Living creatures were called forth, spoken into being by the Creator, Creatures swimming and splashing, flying and soaring
And they were beautiful and blessed and good

More living creatures were spoken into being, this time on land, creeping and crawling, grazing and glorious.
And then came one last living creature – humankind –
The one made in God’s image.
God looked out over the water and the land
Over the swimming and flying and walking and creeping creatures

And God commanded the human beings to care for them
To care for the land and the plants that would feed all the creatures
To care for the water that refreshed and restored.
To care for one another.
By the end of the sixth day, work had shifted from creating to commissioning
It was good.
It was meant to always be good.
And on the seventh day, God declared a day of rest.

This is our beginning.

God formed our first ancestor from the dust of the earth
A human from the humus.
An adam from the adamah

And then God breathed the spirit of life into this earthling
The very ruach that had hovered in the chaos now filled the lungs and heart and soul of the one creature made in the image of the Creator

And God placed this one in the garden in Eden
The garden where the trees offered sustenance and life AND the knowledge of good and evil.
In the garden in need of a caretaker

God knew the caretaker needed a helper… an ezer
Because in the beginning,
in the chaos that was the time before time and the place before place,
there was love.
There was community
The one creator was also three

It would not do for this image bearer to be alone
And none of flying or crawling or leaping or galloping creatures would do- as wondrously and fearfully made as they were.

And then there were two, the adam and the ezer, both created in the image of God.

(Adam) I remember the first time I saw you. You took my breath away.

(Eve) I think that was God. He does that, you know.  Gives you breath; takes it away.

No really, I remember looking at you and thinking how different you were. Not like anything else God had placed in the garden. Your hands were like mine. Your ears were in the right place. Then you opened your eyes and… There was something within you that spoke to me…
Even before you spoke.

I remember those first days.  How we walked all over the Garden and everything was just… easy. Being with you, being with God, hearing his voice. Never hungry. Never afraid. Life was simple and beautiful. It was good.

We had no idea how good.

Do you ever wonder what would have happened?  I mean, if we…

No. Well, of course I do. But no. There is no going back.  God made that clear.
This is our life.
Here.  Now.
I know it hasn’t been easy. I miss those days, too.

Do I still take your breath away?

Yes you do. Every time I pick up these tools to till the soil.
And every time I think about how hard you worked to bring our children into the world.

They have your eyes, you know.

——

They were image bearers still, but now they experienced God from a distance.
And with distance grows confusion and vulnerability to the powers of the world to distract and wound, to confound and separate.

The powers of brokenness loved the chaos that the creator had tamed back In the beginning.
And now their voices grow louder, giving them power–
never stronger than the power of God
but always challenging the people
Always seeking to steal life, hope, joy
Continuing to speak lies into their minds and hearts.

There were moments of trust, shining like the light of that first sunrise
Peals of laughter as Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age
Taking those first steps onto the dry bed of the red sea, pharaoh’s men closing in behind them
Marching around the walls of Jericho
Gideon sending men home, Debra singing, David dancing
Sun glinting off the Temple where the lamp stood and the ark was home among God’s people, a tall, strong reminder that God was at work among them

But trust also falters, fear and despair creep in, alongside arrogance and pride
Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, revealing humanity’s capacity for evil
Brokenness cast shadows large and small, distorting the image of the creator once so clearly reflected.
Liberation from Egypt and a land of promise were not enough
Prophets and judges were not enough
Kings and priests were not enough
God’s covenant was not enough
Idols and Asherah poles, Kingdoms rising and falling,

God’s chosen people, his children, falling faster and walking farther away
Until they found themselves shattered and scattered.

There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile

In the beginning, there was love
Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.

There would be fourteen more generations from the Babylonian exile to the arrival of the Messiah.
The Messiah… the Promised One
The Bread of Life
The Good Shepherd
Jesus… fully human… fully God.

Who was there in the beginning,
In the chaos and the water and in the darkness
See, in the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place,
there was love.
And light… And life.
And the Word.

The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Not a thing that came after could have been made without him.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

And when the time was right
When it was time to begin again
the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Thank you to our Adam and Eve this morning.

As I mentioned last week, this week marks the start of a new cycle in the Narrative Lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the term, a lectionary is a prescribed set of readings.

The Revised Common Lectionary is an example that has been around for a long time. It runs in a three-year cycle that is driven primarily by the dates and seasons that many streams of Christianity have celebrated for centuries.

The Narrative Lectionary is similar – the creators assigned particular readings for each Sunday and all those extra holy days that we celebrate.  The full cycle of readings are meant to help us follow the long sweeping arc of the Biblical narrative between now and Pentecost.

That means every fall, we go back to the beginning.
Back to where it all started.

Our readings from Genesis 2 and 3 today aren’t the poetic images from the first creation account in Genesis. This account is a little more prosaic.

In the first segment, we are reminded that Adam, the first human, had a purpose – to take care of the garden… to till it and maintain it.  And as he worked the land, the man was free to eat the fruits of his labor.

Literally. Whatever he wanted from whatever tree.  

Well, there was the one tree he couldn’t eat from – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This was when God determined that his gardener would need a partner. We bounced right over the description of God making all the creatures and Adam naming them as they seek the right partner for his work.  

But finally, God makes another human, the only creature who could be a true partner for the first human.

At this point, all is right in the world.

The two humans continue to serve as the keepers of the garden. They are welcome to eat the fruit from the trees, to drink clean water from the river.

It’s a pretty amazing beginning, really. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that?
Direct access to God. Plenty to eat. No worries at all.

Until that pesky serpent came along.

For a long time, what happened next has been called “the fall.”  As if all of human existence has been a let down.  The sequence of events – the fact that Eve was the first tricked into breaking the rules – or that she caused Adam to sin also – that sequence has led some believers to blame the existence of sin in the world on women.  

And then to use that belief to place women in a second class category.  You can probably guess where I stand on that… and why it makes me sad that the influence of that interpretation extends well beyond church walls. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to challenge you to consider their choices in light of the other stories we know from scriptures and our own lives.  The ways that humankind seeks to take charge, to be more God-like, not just reflecting God’s image but acting like gods on our own.

God is the one who has the capacity to understand good and evil. To judge. We tend to find ourselves in pretty deep trouble when we begin to take on that role

So I have always found it interesting that the tree held the key to the knowledge of good and evil. It was not the tree of good or evil. It was the entry into the knowledge of good and evil.

That means that from the very beginning, evil was around, lurking, and able to be observed. Just as surely as good and love were there from the beginning.  

Eating that particular fruit, against the wishes of God, would mean our first parents would see the world differently, would understand the world differently, would have the wonderful, awful knowledge that comes with being able to discern right from wrong, good from evil.

Both wonderful and awful because knowing good from evil goes beyond judging the appearance of actions.
It has to do with judging a person’s heart.
It has to do with judging one’s own heart.

Whether or not you believe that there were literally two people in a big garden that housed talking animals, including a serpent.  And whether or not you think that those two people ate some kind of fruit that ended humanity’s time in that perfect garden…

I think we can all agree to this truth: that you and I carry within us that same human tendency to put ourselves in the seat that ought to be God’s. To exert our control over the world in ways that might not actually be healthy and helpful.

We have a tendency to judge other people and attempt to ascribe motives to their actions (whether good or evil).

We can see the promise in one another, the gifts and talents and beauty that reflect the incomparable creativity, energy, love and glory of God. We can imagine the power that could be harnessed by banding together.

We can harness that power for good. Or we can find ourselves building towers that reach up to the heavens like the one in Babel…structures and systems that benefit those we trust, those we judge to be like-hearted or like-minded. And oppress those who are not.

I think about the Tower of Babel when I drive through cities with big tall downtown high rises.  Writing those words this week, I couldn’t help but think about this day. And what it means to talk about towers that are destroyed.

I have to confess that I dread this date when it rolls around every year.  

There is something about the way that we remember this day, the way we recall the terror of the day that makes me almost physically ill.

Probably all but the youngest among us can recall the first images we saw coming out of New York City 15 years ago. Then out of Washington DC.  And Pennsylvania.

I can’t unsee those images.  

Not any more than I can unsee the images of the devastation that took place closer to home in the Pulse nightclub, or images of the bombed-out streets of Aleppo, or images of the poor souls who were liberated from World War II concentration camps, but looked like walking corpses.

I cannot unsee them.  

Not any more than I can unsee the face of the person who laughed when I tried to explain just how deeply and permanently their actions had wounded me.

I would give most anything to go back to the days before I understood just how horrible people can be – how horrible we are – to one another.

To go back to the days before we talked about active shooters on elementary school campuses.

Before we worried about planes flying just a little too low over major cities.  

I would give almost everything to go back to the days before I knew just how painful it is to be abandoned or rejected by someone who had once been kind and loving.

Chances are good that you, too, have been judged harshly at some point in your life. And have judged others unfairly.

And if you’re like me at all, you have experienced the sting of shame that inevitably follows, especially when I search my own motives and see my own capacity for evil.

The awareness of the depth of our sin…  my sin.
The truth of our capacity for evil…  It’s scary stuff.

Seriously… I’m a pretty brave person and human depravity scares the snot out of me.

But here’s the problem – That fear is exactly what drives us to build walls and draw lines, to make clear the parameters for being us rather than them.

That fear of the evil others might do is what increases the odds that we’ll beat them to it.

Because combining the evil in us with our fear of evil in others is like throwing gasoline on a fire. And there are an awful lot of people making an awful lot of money off of feeding that fire right now.  

Our “news” programs focus on criminal activity and offer breathless reporters sensationalizing the most mundane of stories.  We don’t have weather radars any more. They are now Storm Trackers.  

And because we are too scared not to watch, ratings go up, advertisers pay more, so that hopefully, we’ll buy more stuff.  

Our political candidates have long ago stopped describing what they can or would like to do for their constituents. Instead the political action committees scare voters into voting against the opposing party.

And even knowing all that, even knowing how it all works, it’s still easy to get sucked into the vortex of fearing the unknown… the unknown people, the unknown future…

And forgetting that we have a power within us that is greater than any fear, greater than any hate. A power that is older than time itself.

In the beginning
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that took on flesh, resisted every temptation, and remained obedient to the end
Love that is perfect
Love that drives out fear

Love that lives on, embodied by the gathered who remember the sacrifice, who remember their call to tear down the walls that divide

Love that is made flesh by the gathered who call upon the Prince of Peace

Love that gathers many voices into one voice to pray Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done.

That is the true power of knowing good and evil.  

We can be the good that the world needs to see and experience. We can speak the truth and love that the world needs to hear.

In the mess that is this time…
In the mess that is this place…
There is love.  

And for that, I give thanks.

Faith Built on Hope

Primary Scriptures:  Romans 5:1-11 and Luke 24:13-33

This time last week, I was on my way to Montreat for a conference for pastors in interim work. I am so very  thankful for your support and encouragement to continue learning and growing in my leadership.

While I was there, I met pastors from all over the country… mostly here in the southeast, since Montreat is close by. But there were a few from the west coast, even one Canadian

We spent time in seminars covering several helpful topics. We had opportunities to speak with the faculty members, many of whom have served several churches who find themselves between settled pastors. We also spent time in groups for peer coaching.

It was all great…

But you know the best part? Hearing all their stories. Stories of churches much like ours. Some smaller, some larger… some in cities, others in small towns or rural settings.  Each one unique, and yet it seems that we all find ourselves asking the same questions…
What comes next?
What is our place in the bigger picture…
What is our part in the Body of Christ?
What is our role in the larger community – the city that has grown and changed around us, the culture that has been shifting so rapidly in the last decade…

As you might imagine, many churches are on the road to closure. They are in the process of making really hard decisions about property and memorials and where their members will go to find care and fellowship. Those are very difficult conversations to enter into and even more difficult to stay in. These are oftentimes very sad stories. God-led and grace-filled, to be sure, but always hard for the members and those who are there to help the congregation finish well.

The good news is that many more of the folks that I met and talked with last week shared stories about walking alongside congregations in the midst of the work – the hard work –  of transformation. Transformation is always hard work. It’s hard to start, hard to finish, and even harder to maintain.

We come from a long lineage… a long heritage of folks who had to work hard at change.  Seriously, it goes way way back. In fact, next week, we’ll start the Lectionary year over again by heading back to the beginning of the great collection of our stories of faith, each in its own way a testament to the transforming nature of God.

And as we did last fall, we’ll travel through the Old Testament in the months leading into Christmas.  The thread running through the passages we’ll explore this year is Promise…
the promises God makes to our foremothers and forefathers.
the promises they make to God…
the promise of fresh starts…
the promise of new life…
the promise of a deliverer… the promised one… the messiah.

We’ll recall through these chapters in our great redemption story, the faithfulness of God.  The truth that even as humankind found myriad ways to go astray, God remained steadfast. God stayed with us.
God loved us.
The truth that God loves us still

And we’ll recall how, even as the prophets called the kings and people to repentance, speaking the truths that no one wanted to hear about sin and judgment and consequences…God also gave them a message of hope: If the people would turn to God, if they would change their focus, God would honor and bless them.  

The funny thing is, we read that as if God’s behavior is contingent upon the work of the leaders and the people under their care.

The truth is, God has been there, keeping all those promises all along.  It’s the people who lose sight of that truth as their focus shifts, as their gaze wanders.  Kind of like Jesus, walking along the road to Emmaus, having an incognito conversation with two disciples.

I’ve read and heard several interpretations of this encounter.  Some say that this episode tells us that our resurrection bodies – the ones we get when we are finally in God’s presence after this life is over  – that those bodies are somehow different, that we will be ourselves but not so completely ourselves that we are instantly recognizable.

Others say that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, clouding their vision so that Jesus could hear what they were saying without worry that they would stop telling their story.

Luke uses the verb “recognize” both at the beginning and at the end of the passage –when their eyes are closed and then opened to his identity. They saw him from the start, but they didn’t actually recognize him until the end, when he was breaking the bread.

This is an interesting echo of  the  wording used when Adam and Eve first opened their eyes and recognized that they were naked. And that there was something to shameful in their being so thoroughly revealed.

You see, Luke wants us to understand that this is a moment of deep recognition.  That “oooohhhh” moment when you see someone after not quite seeing them for who they really and truly are.

Jesus had walked a good way with them, teaching them and reminding them of all the ways that the prophets had been preparing the Hebrew people for his coming.  They had covered a lot of ground, literally and theologically,  before he took the bread and broke it. And they saw him for who he was…  

Seeing him, recognizing him, changed the conversation completely.  It awoke in them a passion they hadn’t felt.  It cleared the confusion and doubt away.

Seeing him, recognizing him again made space for faith.  Because he had made space for hope… Hope that the world didn’t have to be as it had been. That exile and oppression weren’t God’s plan That the empire didn’t always win.   

Seeing him, recognizing him again, set them off on an adventure that would change their lives and ultimately transform much of the world.  Even this part of the world. We trace our own faith to those first followers of Jesus.  The ones who literally sat at table with him, sharing the meal we will remember together today…

Paul never sat at table with Jesus. Never saw him face to face in a physical sense. Not during his earthly life, anyway.  But Paul recognized the transformative power of the resurrection at least as well as any of those who spent time with Jesus before and after. Paul understood the role of faith in our coming to truly know – to recognize – the saving grace Jesus offered.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us of our inability as humans to meet all the expectations of the law.  of the fallibility that would keep all of us from ever knowing God’s great love for us and for the world.

Paul writes of the reconciling work of Jesus- the life, death and resurrection of which the disciples were talking on the road to Emmaus – the revealing of the power of God’s love to redeem all of our messiness and sin.  And he says – not one whit of it is ours to claim…Except to claim faith in the truth that God did all that for us.

God is still doing all that for us. God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit, that we might grow deeper in our understanding – not of the law, not of the minutiae of doctrine – but so that we might fall deeper in love with God, and develop even greater compassion for the neighbors around us.

Paul prescribes in Romans and throughout the epistles, a protocol for strengthening our hearts. It generally starts with suffering, which we are to endure. Not on our own strength of course, but empowered by the Spirit. Paul continues, saying that endurance produces character – which, in turn, allows us to have hope.

Many of you know that I’ve spent time this summer walking and doing some work in the gym. I started out taking short walks around the block. As the summer progressed, I started setting some goals for myself. Go a little farther, then a little faster.  

Then I registered for the conference at Montreat.

I remembered how hard it was for me to walk around up there last year. I didn’t go exploring as far as I wanted because I couldn’t catch my breath going up all the stairs and hills, and I didn’t trust that my legs and knees were strong enough to handle terrain off the sidewalks.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find changing my personal habits are hard. Even when I know what needs to be done, getting started is hard. Keeping at it is hard, too. It much easier to fall back into the old, comfortable and known way of being.

Until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain you anticipate will come during or as a result of the change process, the status quo will do just fine.

But status quo wasn’t going to get me up any of those hills.  So I set some new goals and got to work

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If you could hear this picture, it would include my catching my breath between “wows”. The vistas were lovely.

I am happy to say that 400 miles – even on the flat sidewalks of Central Florida  – paid off. I went wandering all around the conference center, up and down some of the steepest hills. I even managed to get to the top of Mount Mitchell.  

It was there that I was feeling a little cocky and decided to do a ¾-mile hike on the nature trail. The sign said it was “easy” and I’d been walking some of the nature trails around Montreat.

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If you look closely, you can see the description of the trail.

I knew it was going to drop a good 200-250 feet in elevation as the trail meandered down to the parking lot, but it sounded way less steep than going back down the 300 yard path that went directly from the lot to the observation tower.

So off I went.

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Seriously – how hard can it be? The rabbit looks like he’s enjoying the trail.

Now, I can stroll a full mile in about 20 minutes, even on hilly terrain. So I was guessing maybe 30 minutes down the hill. Maybe a little longer with stops to read or take photos.

Yeah- at about 20 minutes in, I was maybe half-way through the trail loop.  I had already crawled up and over tree roots and boulders, hopped across puddles and begun to mutter to the unknown author of the trail description about our definitions of “Easy” not quite being aligned.

And then the trail made yet another hairpin turn. Once again, I found myself looking uphill for the white triangle blaze.  And there wasn’t really a trail any more. It was like a staircase made of big rocks and fallen trees with lincoln log notches cut out and a maybe a few grassy spots between puddles. Oh, and every step was a different height…

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No really, this is the trail. I wasn’t lost.

My knees were tired.
My lungs were getting a little chatty.
I could hear my heart thumping in my ears.  NOT my resting heart rate, in case you wondered.

And then I laughed.

I laughed because I had a choice to make. Sit down, go back to the start, or go on. None of them seemed good. It all seemed too hard.

A voice in my head was reminding me that people who hike alone are much more likely to be eaten by bears….

But there was another voice…It was saying, “You got this. You can do it. You’ve walked way farther and in way worse heat and humidity than this. You’re strong enough to keep going.”  

I remembered working through the pain of those first walks and sore muscles, the endurance I had been building on sidewalks and treadmills, on bikes and in the pool. Looking back on where I’d been allowed me to have confidence- faith – in my ability to get up that stretch of the trail…

I was neither helpless, nor hopeless, in the face of an unexpected challenge.   

I’m not sure what the chipmunks thought of this human huffing and puffing her way past the ferns and lichen-covered stumps. I suspect that the crazy flapping of my arms as I balanced on slippery stones and logs scared off more than a couple of birds. But I was able to press on, and I realized that in addition to quieting the voice that was worried about bears, I was really enjoying myself.

Finishing the loop was no longer about surviving or successfully achieving a goal. It was about experiencing the joy that overtakes me in those all-too-rare opportunities to drink deeply of nature’s beauty

A friend of mine is a physical therapist. She works with all kinds of people, from young athletes to octogenarians. And she told me once that the most amazing thing about our bodies is the way they respond to the challenges we put in front of them. We are made to adapt and gain strength from the effort of overcoming.

Yes, the challenges need to be the RIGHT challenges. That’s why I needed to start walking earlier in the summer to be able to get up those hills this week.  But physical challenges reveal our character, our capacity for hope and transformation.

And that crazy little hike filled me with hope and faith for us in the days to come…

You see we, together, are a body, just as surely as each of us have bodies.  We, together, make up the body of Christ. And together, we can adapt and rise up to the challenges that come before us, overcoming all kinds of barriers in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have a faith built on hope for us as we pray and work as a body here in this time and place.
That we can discern together the challenge God has for us to pursue.
That we can start small and learn how to use our faith muscles in new and different ways.
That we can work together, moving a little farther away from our comfort zone with every step, even as we  draw on lessons from the past.

I have hope that our eyes will be opened and that we will recognize Jesus in one another, in our neighbors, and in the people God brings to our table.

I have hope that as we keep God – Father, Son, and Spirit – at the center of our gaze, we’ll be able to follow the trail, no matter how rocky and hilly it gets.

I have hope that when we do this work in a way that honors our past and present, this congregation will have a future, and that future will be filled with joy and laughter.

I have faith, built on the hope and love that abide in Christ, and abide in all of us as we abide in Christ.  

My prayer is that the God who is able to do abundantly far more than we could ever ask or imagine, would grant us the wisdom, courage, love, faith, hope and joy we need for this and every day of our lives together.

Amen.

Lead Us, Deliver Us

I don’t know how anyone could approach this prayer as a whole, but especially this petition without the context and insights offered by John Dominic Crossan in his brilliant book The Greatest Prayer (Harper One, 2010). 

Primary Text: Matthew 6:7-15  Also Matthew 3:16-4:11


And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Or as the more familiar King James version reads:
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

This section is probably the most perplexing of the petitions in Jesus’ model prayer.  

Much of the rest of the prayer can be understood with a very surface level reading, or at least makes sense in light of teachings we are more familiar with in the gospels.

When we pray this prayer together, we call out to God as our shared Father, a reminder that we are brothers and sisters of Jesus the Christ.  We remember that we have a relationship with God, on a first-name basis, so to speak. But we also remember that God is God – holy, set apart. That while we are welcome to call on God by name, we are not to take that relationship lightly, nor to use God’s name flippantly.

In our prayer, we seek from God an experience of creation as it was meant to be, a peaceable kingdom under the rule of the one who Created and then set the world in motion, a Kingdom under the care of the Prince of Peace.

As we go deeper into the prayer, we ask God for the food we need, trusting that God will provide for our physical needs here and now, and that we will be fed spiritually as we learn to forgive others in the same way that God offers grace to us.

And then we come to this petition: Do not bring us to the time of trial. Rescue us from the evil one.

It’s a little tricky, risky even, to bring the words of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who walked the earth 20 centuries ago up to current times. We’re already taking them from an ancient Greek text and translating them into English, which has its limitations as a language. Then there are the geographic and technological differences.

Most of us -including me – aren’t familiar enough with the Jewish traditions in which Jesus was raised to pick up on the nuances of the theological shifts he was making in his teachings, at least not without doing some research.

Our individually-focused American culture makes it hard to understand the collective language and community-oriented culture that permeates the commands and expectations of the faithful that we receive through scriptures.

And, we generally read our history from the perspective of the victor, the dominant force.

For instance, the history of the western world generally starts with the Roman Empire, definitely not that of the people who were subjugated by Rome in the Mediterranean or across Europe and northern Africa. In fact, it always catches me by surprise to think of the Apostles going to Rome… seeing the aqueducts, traveling on the Roman roads that I read so much about…  But the truth is that Rome wasn’t some far-off concept for first-century Jews.

The empire was about the business of keeping people under their thumb by whatever means were necessary, including the people in the region where Jesus was born, grew up, taught and was executed.

I offer all this by way of introduction today because unless we improve the lens through which we read this portion of Jesus’ model prayer, unless we have at least some sense of the historical and cultural context in which Jesus offered these words, our modern applications of its teachings become so shallow as to be meaningless.

If we could jump into a time machine, a faith-powered TARDIS, if you will, and point it to the decade or so before the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, we would be landing in a very dangerous time. Following the death of Herod the Great, bands of rebels had taken up arms and were engaging in small battles across the region.

There was a significant Roman presence in the capital city of the Galilee, Sepphoris.  A rebel named Judas gathered a large number of men and led an assault on the royal palace in Sepphoris, where they took weapons and stole back all sorts of seized property which they then redistributed – Robin Hood-like to other rebels.  

There was no permanent military presence in Israel at the time, so to quash the rebellion, Rome would have to make a calculated risk, pulling men from their posts on another border.  If you’re thinking Rome would need to work quickly in Galilee to avoid tempting enemies on the border, you get bonus points.  

Two legions arrived, ready for a campaign of “shock and awe” or Sword and Blood. The leaders of this massive army made clear that they would teach the rebels and the whole region that produced them a lesson that would last at least 2 generations.  

They marched into Sepphoris with at least 12,000 troops – ELITE troops- along 2000 cavalry soldiers and 1500 infantry.  An Arab ally arrived with additional resources. Varus, the commander, split his forces, knowing they would still overpower everyone they encountered. Half of his men went to Jerusalem, with the others fighting against the rural Galileans.

They were relentless, gutting the capital city of Sepphoris and razing the surrounding villages. Nazareth – where Joseph worked as a carpenter – was a tiny village about 4-5 miles away. While Nazareth is not mentioned by name in the surviving documents containing Roman and Jewish historical accounts, we know the fate of other villages of similar size in the region.  

Here’s an excerpt from one such collection called Jewish Antiquities.

They [the Romans and their Arab allies] encamped near a village called Arous sacked by the Arabs. Thence Varus advanced to Sappho [in Judea], another fortified village, which they likewise sacked, as well as the neighboring villages which they encountered on their march. The whole district became a scene of fire and blood and nothing was safe against the ravage of the Arabs. Emmaus, the inhabitants of which had fled, was burnt to the ground by the orders of Varus.

Whether overrun by Romans or Arabs, the sacking was complete
Grain, produce and livestock – Taken
Houses, farms, fruit trees – destroyed
Men were killed, women raped and young people enslaved.

Those who survived and somehow fled found themselves living as refugees of political violence.  Those who stayed – they gathered what little was left, bringing home as many extended family members as were nearby and grafting in those who were widowed, orphaned or otherwise left behind.  

Children like Jesus, born into this region in the years after the occupation would surely have heard the stories being told and retold. It would have become part of the local language and lore.

As my friends in New Orleans and around the gulf coast would attest, traumatic events can cause a shift in the way we mark time. For them, every life event is placed in relation to Katrina. For New York City especially, September 11, 2001, marks the beginning and end of an era.  No doubt, Jesus would have heard elders in his community telling stories that used the sacking of Nazareth or Sepphoris as the time stamp.

Zealots remained active, though not nearly as boldly or broadly as before. The Military incursion had done its job, it would be another 60 years before an invasion of this size would be necessary to tamp down violent resistors.

In the meantime, the Jews would engage in non-violent resistance.

Leaders of the synagogues and temples aligned themselves with Roman leaders, hoping to influence them, align them, “change things from the inside” as much as any outsider could. Communities rebuilt and redoubled their efforts to be unified, watching out for one another, sharing what little resources they still had. And they focused on being a distinct culture that was in opposition to the culture of Rome.  Not just in protest, but truly being the opposite of the Empire. The laws of the Torah, the calls to justice and mercy, the commands to forgive… all set the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob apart.

It was into this culture, this history, that Jesus was born
It was among these rabbis, in this extended family that Jesus was raised to manhood in faith.
It was into this culture, where the laws of God were enforced by men who counted on the law to save them from harm in this life, that the fully divine Jesus taught the people about the heart behind the rules.

Jesus teaches his people to pray lead us not into temptation.

But more specifically, he is teaching them  to pray
Lead us not into the temptation of violent resistance to Rome’s oppression.
Deliver us from the acts of the evil one

The one on the throne who seeks to do us evil
The evil one who would have us join in the chaos by repaying evil for evil

This feels to me like the best explanation for something that makes very little sense on the surface.  It seems odd that God would lead us into temptation… so why would we need to ask God not to?

We see God leading people from so very early on in the relationship between humans and God- God leads us with words, just as clearly as with clouds of fire, God leads with prophets, kings and teachers. It’s not as if God is in the business of leading people into temptation.

Except that one time… Listen to these words from a little earlier in Matthew’s Gospel…
16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

God is pleased with Jesus getting baptized in obedience to God’s call. Now listen closely to what happens next:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan points out the importance of this sentence that lays out the  sequence of events.  Notice…, he says, that Jesus is “led by the Spirit – to be tempted – by the devil. It is God, as in the Abba Prayer, who brings Jesus to the time of trial. (CrossanThe Greatest Prayer, 170)

God brings Jesus to the time of trial, of temptations, so that as we face our own times of trial, we have an advocate who understands and speaks to God on our behalf, inhabiting our own prayers.  

Jesus was weak – or at the very least must have been getting hangry –  as the temptations come at him.
He [Jesus] fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

This was a personal temptation – literally saying, you have more than enough power, miraculous power, to take care of your own hunger.  Why not? And yet, Jesus knows that his divine power was not to be used for personal comfort, but for the work of God among the people of God. So he responds using the words in Deuteronomy 8:3
But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The tempter builds on Jesus’ response, going to Scripture himself.  He cites Psalm 91:11-12, tempting Jesus with a public display of God’s power, since the personal display was not enough to draw him in.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus sees that this situation goes beyond him to test God – Would God protect Jesus, if the Son were to take this opportunity to prove his identity in a public way?
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The third temptation starts with the assumption that Jesus is who he claims to be.  No longer will the challenge be about his identity as the Son of God.   And there is no pretense of religiosity here, no scripture quoted.

The tempter goes straight to the desires of most human hearts – and right to the antithesis of Jesus’ purpose here on Earth.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus has been offered all the glory and power of the Kingdoms of the World.   All in exchange for worship. This rule, this domination over multiple peoples and lands, is precisely the sort of rule that the Roman Emperors had built over the years, expanding their borders ever farther, sending legions of soldiers to defend those borders.

But this gathering, compiling of power and glory that comes of ruling worldly kingdoms has no appeal. Not to the Son of God who was with God from the beginning of all creation.  The Word who spoke all creation into being.

God alone is worthy of worship.  And so,
10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I suspect he wasn’t hangry for much longer.

The violent world that we call the civilized world
The world of war and invasions and revolutions
The world of systemic imbalances and oppression based on ethnicity and country of origin
That is world of the now, the world that is not yet as it will be.

That is the world in which sinful humanity rules, and not particularly well
The nonviolent world of creation
The world of innocence and intimacy with God that we read of in Genesis
The world of worship and unity we read of in Revelation
That is the world in which God rules with mercy and lovingkindness

The tempter may lay claim to have the authority to give away the violence of human kingdoms, but only God may offer that world to the healing work of Christ

And God did just that. All because of love.

God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to redeem the world, to begin the long process of reconciling us to God, not with a sword and flames, not with miracles devised to terrify and terrorize.

God sent Jesus to draw humankind back to God by becoming a living, breathing portrait of God’s love…
Jesus fed the hungry, healed the lame, gave water to the thirsty and clothes to the naked.
Jesus gave sight to the blind and set captives free.  

It seems silly, really, to think that Jesus would have succumbed to the temptation to worship Satan in hopes of gaining power or glory. Especially knowing that he gave it all up to be here among us. Using violence to gain power or influence, inciting violence to gain fame or notoriety, winking at the violence of others on your behalf as you seek honor and authority… that right there is worshiping Satan.  

But [for Jesus] to obtain and possess the kingdom the power and the glory by [means of] nonviolent justice is to worship God.  (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 173)

As our divine proxy, Jesus declines the opportunity to use violence to establish the Kingdom of God, recognizing it could only bring more of the same pain, despair, mourning and isolation that marked life under the Empire.

Time after time, empire after empire, nation after nation (including our own) has fallen prey to this temptation.  Has chosen to engage the pursuit of power by way of violence. All too often in the name of God.

We have done violence to other peoples
By signing treaties that remove entire nations from their homelands and any hope of a future
By participating in genocide on our soil and on other continents
By kidnapping, enslaving and subjugating generations of Africans
By developing and using weapons of mass destruction
By deporting immigrant women and children to nations at war
By closing our borders to refugees

And then we claim to be followers of Jesus, the Christ.
Who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.   (Philippians 2:6-11)

The Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted, just God tests us and leads us to times of trial. Not because God is fickle, but because we are… God’s stamina within our covenant relationship is astounding. God is unshakable.

We humans, however…  well, we have integrity issues. God must check in with us regularly to see that we are still serious about following, trusting, and worshiping God alone.

Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are tempted to turn from the commandments of God
By feeding ourselves as others go without
By wielding and displaying our power in order to intimidate others
By bowing down to and placing our earthly kingdoms in a position of power at the expense of others’ agency, culture, health and livelihoods

We can and must call upon his power, his capacity for love and mercy to overcome our own capacity for fear and hatred.

Our Father in Heaven is holy, and wholly beyond our imaginings
Our Father’s kingdom is one where all are welcome, all are fed, all are heard
Our Father’s grace and forgiveness is so abundant that we are filled to overflowing and splash them onto others with abandon
All of which assures us that when we worship God and God alone, we will see God’s kingdom of justice breaking into this world of violence, and God will no longer need to test us.

As children of God, we can call upon our Father with a sense of trust and hope
Giving all the glory and honor to our Creator, Savior and Helper
Now and forevermore
Amen.

That second decade, part two

In which we consider the middle section of that stretch of life between 11 and 20.  The High School years.

That would be roughly 1980-84.   Not a great time for music, at least according to my darling hubby who is a decade ahead of me…  It was the end of disco and the start of MTV and new wave music. My tastes ran from Billy Idol to Talking Heads, the Police to Georgia Satellites.  And of course, Amy Grant.  I mean, I was a church youth group kid.

I look back at some of the poetry I kept from those days, some of the pictures I still have around. Still struggling to find my voice.  Still struggling to find my style. Still more interested in time spent doing and being than in crafting an image.

I still have my letter jacket from volleyball, and I treasure my Girl Scout 1st Class and Gold Awards. If you don’t know, both of them are the equivalent of the Eagle Scout for boys.  I was active as they transitioned to the new award structure and had the option of which to go for.  I opted to do the work for both.

Kind of like doing all the activities.  Why do just sports when you can also do choir? And Student Government.  And Spanish Club. And dual enroll at the university. And take on leadership in church youth at the local, area and regional level.   And still feel pretty much average and mediocre, not worth anyone making a fuss over.

I guess that sums me up. Why not do all the things?   And put heart and soul into all of it.  Not because I am driven to personal perfection or success.  But because there are other people putting their time and effort into it, too.  Teachers, coaches, mentors, troop, team, group or club members…. now it’s congregations and committees, bosses and teammates, spouse and kid.  We are in it together, and my part is just as important as (though not more important than) everyone else’s.

If I could whisper into my ear then from here and now…

Press on, Goober.  Just press on.  They won’t tell you now, but all those folks you think don’t see you because you don’t look like them?  They do.  And they respect you in ways they won’t be able to express until we’re all old.  Oh, and that drugs/party scene… the reason you don’t know it exists is because they don’t invite you. Which, as you’ll learn all too soon, is probably a good thing.

That second decade

The years between 11 and 20…  this will definitely need to be a two-parter.  At least. I mean, we’re talking middle school, high school and the first part of college.

Let’s just tackle that middle school madness for a minute.   Think late seventies.  That would be when we took fashion cues from the Love Boat and whatever made it to Central Texas from the disco scene.   There were those skinny little gold belts, sheer or shiny fabrics, and really odd shoes.

I, of course, was your classic slightly pudgy tomboy who had a really hard time caring about that stuff. Except for when I cared about that stuff. Which was mostly when someone pointed out that I looked like I didn’t care.  Because, well, early adolescent brains just work that way.

So instead of trying to fit in with the fashions that suited the tall, thin girls, I opted for the carpenter pants and overalls (long and short) that came out in all the primary colors and white.  We won’t go into the details of why white pants become problematic for young women of this age group. Suffice it to say, even Judy Blume can’t prepare you for the unpredictability that comes with all that “becoming a woman” business.

Quintessential Me Moments…

  • Telling a coach who was particularly rude to some of my friends and I who weren’t able to something (run a certain pace, probably) that no, I didn’t have to respect her if she wasn’t able to earn my respect.
  • Choosing to write my notes in science backwards just to provoke my teacher (and then reading them to her to prove that I was paying attention).
  • Sitting in my pre-algebra class totally bewildered by the negative side of the number lines.
  • Being involved in everything possible at school – from sports to student council to Spanish club – specifically so I wouldn’t have to be home in time to do chores or babysit.

If I could whisper in my own ear from here…

There will always be mean girls (and women). Stay the course, keep standing up for yourself and others.  There will also be women ready to mentor you, just like Coach K.  Stay the course, keep looking for them, keep learning from them.  All of this will make you a better mentor, advocate and mom.

Recombobulated 

I love flying places. There is nothing like getting into a plane for a couple of hours and getting out in a whole new city and climate and time zone. 

I feel like an explorer watching the topography and vegetation change through the window. And I am fascinated by the way the clouds look from inside and above.

I even kind of like the people watching that is built into our new pattern of travel. How some people queue better than others, what kind of unpack-able souvenirs are now carry-ons, the diversity of accents and languages at the gate.  

And the recombobulating that happens following the dreaded security gate. Oh, the dynamics that get revealed as families and individual  travelers get through the machine…

The first time I remember flying alone was on a hopper flight from College Station up to DFW.  I don’t know why, but I ended up seated next to the Captain (mom says also the owner of the small airline). 

I had my Donald Duck comic book with me as I got strapped into a seat right in the cockpit. With all the dials in view and the stick in reach.  Seriously! 

Besides the fact that the stick moved automatically as the Captain steered us, my memories are mostly about how LOUD it was up there. 

I mean, it was so loud that I couldn’t hear a thing for hours after we landed and I found Aunt Marie. It was like the temporary hearing disruption you get after mowing the lawn or using some other loud motor. Times 1000. 

But every time I fly, I think about being in the co-pilot seat, trusted not to mess things up while I absolutely trusted the Captain to do likewise.  

Finding that place of mutual trust works pretty well in a lot of life.  We grow ups could do with practicing more of that, I think.

Forgive Us As We Forgive

Primary Texts: Psalm 32, Luke 11:1-5  With gratitude and credit to Gord Waldie for his inspirational musings on forgiveness and the great reference to Miroslav Volf’s ideas in Free of Charge

The last couple of weeks, we’ve been digging into the Lord’s Prayer, taking a closer look at what we say every week as we pray it together. Like everything we do as a ritual, whether once a day, once a week, once a month, there is the danger of the prayer becoming another habit.  The danger of words becoming so ingrained in our memories that prayer is an act of rote recitation.  

We can get distracted or rush through the words, instead of knowing and re-claiming a prayer that speaks from the heart. And so this month, my goal has been to slow us down a bit.  To take time to remember what we learned about this prayer when we were young – or at least young in our faith.  

Jesus was giving his followers – then and now – words to pray that also remind us how to live.  

We remind ourselves first that God is our Father –
The one who claims and adopts us
The one who provides for us
The one in whose image we are created

We remind ourselves that our Father is God
The one who is Holy and set apart,
The one who is worthy of our worship

We remind ourselves that our Father God is our Provider
The one who sends the bread we need each day
The one whose Kingdom has come and is coming
The one whose will we are part of making known in the world

And then we remind ourselves that God’s grace is the source of  what we all so desperately need: forgiveness.

This petition about forgiveness is in the next to the last segment in both Matthew and Luke’s records of the prayer, though the words differ.  In Luke we read: And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Depending on what tradition you grew up in, you might have learned that portion of our liturgical prayer as debts and debtors, trespasses and those trespass against us, or even sins and those who sin against us

Regardless of which terms you usually think of within those phrases, the underlying meaning is clear.
First – We are sinful humans; we need forgiveness for the ways we fall short in our attempts to follow God’s commandments.
Second – we are not the only sinful humans in the world, and we will be called upon to forgive others.

We are indebted to God’s mercy and grace. All the love and care in the universe is extended to us, with only the expectation being that we love God in return and love our neighbors as God’s image-bearers in this earthly realm.

Forgive us, Lord. As we, in turn, forgive others.
It seems pretty simple, at least on paper.

I don’t know about you, but in real life, in the real world, I find forgiveness to be incredibly challenging. If I’m being absolutely honest, I have a hard time believing that I am worthy of being forgiven.

I understand and – by faith – continue living into the truth that there is not a thing I can do in this life that is beyond the power of the living God to forgive.  I can stand here and say that with confidence to each of you, looking you straight in the eye. I can believe it on your behalf.  

I can say it and believe it on behalf of the people who have confessed committing awful crimes in their past.  

I can even say it and believe it on behalf of the people who have committed those awful crimes against me.

Because I honest and truly believe
that 
God’s grace is bigger than the circumstances in which we find ourselves struggling to find the next right thing to do.
that God’s grace is deeper than the depths of our despair over our own failings.
that God’s grace is wider than the gulf between perfection and our very very messy inner lives.

I believe all of those things.  

And yet, there are moments when I desperately need a brother or sister in Christ to stand right in front of me,  look me square  in the eye and say it:
Yes, Laura, God’s grace is big enough and real enough to cover your sins, too.

I wonder sometimes if the difficulty I experience in receiving forgiveness from God is the risk involved in being honest about who I am, with myself before I go to God, and then again as I approach the one who loved me before I understood what sin and love are.   

So much of what we are taught about sin has to do with condemnation and eternal damnation, mostly as a means of moving us to choose salvation.

So much of what we are taught about how to behave, how to move through this world – even when we are just talking about manners and etiquette – is tied to shame, often using sin language.

We are judged by our actions, dragging our families or other social groupings along for the condemnation. We are trained then, to judge and condemn ourselves, regardless of what God might have to say about it.   Can you see why Jesus, when he talked about his work here on Earth, spoke about releasing the captives?  

A big part of that bondage existed and still exists in the form of laws that keep us tied up emotionally, and relationally, the customs and traditions that keep us from seeing one another – and even ourselves – as loved and lovable children of God, worthy of a second, third or 500th chance.

Author Miroslav Volf once described forgiveness as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer”.  Volf’s argument is that this is what God does.  God recognizes the fault – the wrong that is done – and condemns it.  But then God chooses to spare the wrong-doer from the punishment that is deserved and could rightly be given.

This, my friends is mercy.     

This is God sending Nathan the prophet to David so that David might come to understand the lengthy list of sins he had committed while making Bathsheba his queen. Rather than strike David down, or even remove him from his seat of power, which God certainly could easily have done. God chose to spare David.

Oh, there were consequences, echoes of those choice made, as we see in the lives of his children. But God’s forgiveness and forbearance left space for change, for restitution and reformation. A chance for David to repent and become again the man after God’s own heart.  A chance for David to experience the joy of forgiveness.

Now, here’s where Volf’s idea goes from teaching to meddling. What if, as we live into our roles as image-bearers of God, as ambassadors for Christ, God wants us to go and do likewise?

Yes… God expects us to forgive one another in the same way we are forgiven.   

We are to acknowledge the wrong-doing, but rather than seek retribution or revenge, rather than holding a grudge, or even just keeping a tally…
We are to erase it.  
Tear up the tab.  
Forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

Yeah…  I know.

It is hard.  Really hard.  Really really for real hard. And it’s not like this is logical at all.  It’s pretty much the opposite of human nature. We are hard-wired and then loaded with software that moves us to protect ourselves and whatever we’ve gathered as ours.  We build fences and install locks.  We back away from dangerous situations.  We filter our words and are aware of our actions, in hopes that we can move through the world without attracting the wrong kind of attention. We even erect unseen barriers around our hearts to reduce the risk of pain and sorrow.

Walking through the world in a way that invites people to apologize and believes the best about their intentions when they do…  and asking others to do likewise for us… that is a very vulnerable, risky way to live. Especially when you start talking about forgiving people for BIG stuff, stuff that seems impossible to forgive. The stuff that you find it really hard to forgive in yourself.

But that is what we are called to do
That is who we are called to be.

Luke’s gospel is chock full of discussions around forgiveness.  But perhaps the most salient passage for this discussion comes from Luke 6.  This is at the start of Luke’s equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount that Matthew records. But instead of going up onto the mountain to teach, Jesus has just come down to the plains from praying up in the hills. He stands and looks out on a huge crowd that includes his close followers, as well as gobs of people from all over the region…

They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you  on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors  did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

You see, forgiveness comes when mercy is offered where condemnation is expected.
Forgiveness comes when grace is extended.  When lovingkindness has no strings attached.
Forgiveness is good news to the one who has red in his ledger, whether financial, emotional, or relational
Forgiveness is the first stop on our way to shalom, balance, peace, health.

If we speak at all of our faith, we do so in the language of forgiveness, of grace. We proclaim it together, week after week, in our assurance of pardon.  The words we read with Marianne this morning at the end of the assurance of forgiveness:
“Friends, hear and believe the good news…  in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, Alleluia! Amen.”

Every time we eat and drink our holy meal at the Lord’s Table, we proclaim Christ’s saving (forgiving!) death until he comes. The body of Christ is broken; the blood of Christ poured out as a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.

As forgiven people, we are challenged to go out and offer that same forgiveness to others. Just as we love because God first loved us, we draw our capacity to forgive from God’s deep well of forgiveness.

It is a choice we make, each and every day, to live and love and forgive… to bear witness to the life, love and grace of God in Jesus.

Perhaps you are familiar with the an old proverb that says “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”.

But forgiveness – Forgiveness is like cold water on a god-awful hot August day in Florida.

When we are unable to forgive we are holding on to anger and hurt.  And we all know that hurt people, hurt other people. To be the people God created us to be, we need to forgive ourselves, we need to forgive each other, and we need to accept forgiveness from others.

All so that we can be healthy. So that our families and friends and neighbors can be healthy; so that our community and city can be healthy.  We ask for forgiveness, even as we offer it to others…because God is ALWAYS at work in us.

And so we must pray, over and over and over again…
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive those who are indebted to us.
Amen.

 

And then she walked

Today is my second 5K of the summer. The first one was really just a lark. I had been walking semi-purposefully for a few weeks and the opportunity to participate in a fun run/walk just up the beach came along.  That day, my goal was mostly to get a baseline time, to see if I could push a little faster than my daily walk.

Today, I have a goal. I have a pace I want to hit.
I am here to get an official time.
I am here on the way to a healthier me.

And I am here with a bunch of other people…
All sizes, shapes and levels of fitness. Runners, walkers, shuffle-alongers.  And while you can’t see it from this particular shot, all ages and ethnicities, too.

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……  3.1 (and change) miles later…. 

I finished well under my goal of 52 minutes. In fact, I was under 16 for every mile!   Unofficially, I was right close to 49:54 when I stopped my tracker well past the finish line. I’ll see what their clock says later.  [Update: they clocked me at 49:46, a 16:00.8 pace]

Right now, I know that I came, and I walked. I did it with focus and strength.
And I finished hot, sweaty, and proud.

It’s a simple story really…

She got out of bed way earlier than usual.
She got dressed and put on her shoes.
And then she walked.

On Being 10 in 1976

1976 was a pretty cool year…

Our little town had some serious Bicentennial fever.  Our Girl Scout troop joined bunches of others to paint the fire hydrants around town with patriotic colors and themes.  Our elementary school classrooms became art studios as we designed and then painted murals on the walls.

The Liberty Bell replica came through town on the train.  That summer, we even got to name our softball team the 76ers – which was quite a thing, considering that we generally used the same tired names over and over.

It was also the year I turned 10.

I finished 4th grade and moved into 5th.  I was finally at elementary school without my older brother in the building. We still had recess and played foursquare after lunch. We learned square dances and The Hustle in PE, and we tried to earn the President’s Physical Fitness Award.

My circle of friends and I endured the first of many “this is how girls’ bodies work” class sessions, and we discovered the Judy Blume version of those same talks.  I was a tomboy among girlie girls, mortified to be the first to need a bra. I was discovering that I had gifts in music and writing, that numbers were not my strong suit, and that friendships were getting much more complicated.  I had no idea why everyone was talking about “liking” boys and asking me who I “liked.”  I mostly liked any of them that didn’t deserve a punch in the face.   I eventually realized they were talking about a different sort of like.

What I wish I could tell my 10 year old self…

The things that make you feel alone and ashamed, the things that you think are bad or weird, those are the things that make all the good and fun stuff possible.  Including being friends with both boys and girls.  Really- it’s ok not to “like” them yet.  There’s more than enough time for that.

The people who tease you for knowing stuff that they don’t?  They wish they could read and remember the way you do.  That strange and wonderful brain of yours is just waking up to the possibilities of stories and poetry and imagery.  No, you won’t get a lot better at multiplication.  Or fractions.  And division will remain a mystery.  As will dancing. But all that Spanish will stick.

And buckle up, kiddo, because middle school is going to be a wild ride.

Back in the first decade

I don’t remember much from the first 10 years of my life. It’s mostly like a series of snapshots. And maybe that is what I “remember” – the photos I have seen of those early years.

I don’t remember our first house. I was mom’s first Grad School baby. I came along (to my brother’s chagrin) while she worked on her master’s degree. We lived in the grad school neighborhood in Fayetteville and again when we moved so she could work on her doctorate.  

We lived in apartments near campus then. I remember those and some of the people. I had chicken pox there. And the complex manager was a retired doctor named Ted. He gave us shots using his house call bag… His wife, Mimi, was a great lifeguard and confidante for a 4 year old.  

I also remember going to daycare where Big Mama was in charge. I don’t remember what she really looked like any more. But she was a movie star to me – she looked just like Lucille Ball. 

One of my earliest memories of who I am (personality wise) happened at French’s Preschool. There were just a couple of us still there at the end of the day, and we were outside so that the teachers could reset the classrooms and vacuum. Another girl and I were on the playground, climbing on one of those giant metal swing set-monkey bat- holding cell combinations that were common in the early 70s. Plenty big for a dozen kids, and yet nothing would do but she had to be right where I was, telling me “If you don’t move and play over there, I will get you in trouble for being selfish.” 

After 4 or 5 times, the irony of her selfishness leading me to be selfless for fear of being told on for something so opposite of true became more than I could bear. So I stayed put. And when she opened her mouth to tell lies on me, I did some quick calculus and decided I would rather get in trouble for something I actually did. 

So I popped right in the face with my fist. I bloodied her nose. And then I moved to the other end of the monkey bars. 

And then I felt totally ashamed because I knew I would have to face Big Mama. And she would tell my parents. And they would all probably talk to our pastor about me (because we all went to church together, except the horrible girl who made me hit her).  And the whole adult works that mattered to me would be disappointed in me. 

I don’t remember exactly how it all went down from there. I am sure punishment and apologies and avoiding the girl-pest for a time were all involved. 

I do know that over and over, the pattern repeated. I couldn’t stand the idea of someone believing something wrong about me or my friends because someone acting like they knew better said so.  

I still feel that way. Probably why I am a preacher and not a politician or journalist, where I would be punching people in the nose on a daily basis. 

By the time I was 10, we had moved again,  to the house most fond in my memories. A neighborhood with some amazing friends and neighbors. And we’d added two more siblings to pester and protect.