Tag Archives: Prayer

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

One Word for 2015: Wonder

Into the water

Wonder

Few things are more beautiful than to see a person filled with wonder. More often than not it is children that experience this sense of wonder when faced with a world that they are still trying to understand.

The capacity to experience wonder is the capacity to be surprised, to be amazed, to understand that there is something worth noticing in the world. In my own experience, my capacity for wonder has decreased with age, perhaps I am not alone in this. As a child, the moon followed me, but as an adult, it is simply large and ever-present. As a child, a second grade classroom blackboard could be the screen of the starship Enterprise and I was the helmsman, but as an adult it is simply the blackboard of a second grade classroom. As a child, snow was a magical gift, but as an adult it is simply ice crystals which form when the weather is sufficiently cold.

I am glad that I understand more than I did as a child, however, my struggle is that my capacity for wonder has drastically decreased, and more often than not, I function as a workhorse with blinders so as not to be distracted from the corner of my eye.

But it is distraction and wonder which saved God’s people from slavery in Egypt, as Moses noticed a curious sight: a bush that was burning but was not consumed, and decided to take a closer look at this strange and surprising sight. What would have happened had Moses simply kept his head down and focused on his work? What would have happened had he not had the capacity for wonder and allowed that wonder to take the driver’s seat, if only for a few moments? Surely God would have still effected the liberation of God’s people, but the story would certainly read differently.

***

My entries here have been relatively sparse over the past year, partly because of things going on in my life, but also partly because I have been struggling with my own capacity for wonder. It is so easy to operate in life without experiencing life. When I don’t notice, when I don’t wonder, I find it hard to write. But even more, I find it hard to see something which causes me to step aside and experience wonder, to see the presence of God in the periphery.

***

This year, I have chosen a word for this new year, something which has been relatively popular as of late. This will give me a single word, a single concept on which to reflect during the year in my spiritual and personal growth and development. This year I will be growing my capacity for wonder — to be amazed, surprised, to notice and truly see beauty in the myriad of forms which it comes.

I look forward to exploring wonder during this year, and I hope that you will journey with me in this.

After all, it is only when we have a capacity for wonder that we can experience the omnipresence of the divine in the daily (and often mundane) activities of life.

Blessed are the Autumn Daisies

Long after the trees have dropped their leaves, and the canopy of green becomes a jagged collection of branches reaching upward toward the disappearing sun, long after the geese have ceased honking and the birds have stopped their morning songs, long after the bushes begin to blaze but are not yet consumed, long after the patch becomes nothing but green stems without any sort of beauty, the autumn daisy blooms.

***

Autumn has always been a significant time for me. It is a time of transition. The leaves die and fall off, and the trees, which not long ago were thriving, look dead. Once the leaves have fallen it is nearly impossible to look and tell the dead trees from the live trees.

Flowers which brought forth color into the world have all wilted and died, leaving nothing behind but stems and a corpse.

Autumn is a time in which it is evident that we are in the midst of a broken world. The colors are beautiful, to be sure, but the beauty is fleeting, as each leaf which turns into brilliant reds and yellows and oranges are in throes of death. It is a transition that happens every year, and while I know that spring will be coming, and these very trees will bud and the flowers will once again bloom, there is a long and cold winter filled with ice and snow which covers all with which to contend.

Yet in the midst of the cooling temperatures and the ever decreasing sunshine and the clouds which cast a gray haze over all, something unexpected occurs, in the midst of the daisy patch when all of the flowers have given up their energy, one more blooms.

***

I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the natural order. Trees which have cracked and have fallen down continue to grow and bloom, small and comparably weak blades of grass can burst forth through the concrete of a parking lot which has been vacant for only a short time, and dandelions, although they are mowed over again and again, are determined to finish their mission and go to seed.

And when all the other daisies have bloomed, when the bees are gone, when the temperatures turn cold, and there has already been a layer of frost, when the sunshine can no longer be reflected in its golden centers and white petals, a daisy shines like the sun in the midst of a gray autumn day.

***

There are days when I find it hard to face the world, days when I can relate to the trees which have let their leaves die and have dropped them, and they hunker down, and prepare for the lang haul. When the light lessens and the darkness grows, I, too, have the instinct that the rest of nature has as it begins to den and hibernate for the duration.

But I cannot do this, even when the days are difficult, even when the darkness is difficult, even when the world which I must face is harsh, I catch a glimpse of the daisy beaming in all of its glory, amid the dead leaves.

Blessed are the autumn daisies, for they point to life when it is difficult to find.

When you can’t find the words

My calling is centered around language, as language is the way to communicate, to express. In my pastoral role, it is my charge to speak to the community and for the community — to express the experiences and life of the community and to help us all find meaning in our individual and shared experiences. But yet, for myself, I often lack words, I lack the ability to sufficiently translate my experiences into the limits of language. This is especially so in my attempts to speak with God.

Much of this Lent has been spent in the hospital, periodically standing on the boundary between this life and eternity. As I have recently written, nighttime was particularly isolating. When the doctors go away, when the tests and scans and procedures are done for the night, and all that surrounds me is the sound of monitoring machines and the hiss of the oxygen tube, I am left without anyone to which to speak or for which to speak. There is no communal life or experience to articulate. It is just me, overflowing with fears and worries and pain, none of which will abate, and I lack words to offer to God.

***

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
   my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also. 
For my life is spent with sorrow,
   and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
   and my bones waste away.  
(Psalm 31:9-10, NRSV)…

 

I’m over at That Reformed Blog today, come on over to read the rest…

Stepping Into the Unknown

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

 

Faith. Hope. Assurance.

Christianity has its own language, its own vocabulary, and for those who are new to the Christian faith or new to the church, the vocabulary can be somewhat confusing, with terms that are used so often and so frequently and in so many different ways with little or no definition of the terms. Faith is one of those words. In fact, if you asked twenty Christians to define faith, you may well get twenty different answers.

But faith is what the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is all about, and in fact, in the first verse, we get a fantastic definition of faith that we would do well to spend some time and meditate upon. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

You see, many times we think of faith as something intellectual, something that we think. We are saved by faith. This is true, but when think of faith as what we think which is distinct from what we do, this becomes a problem. Faith is not just thinking, faith is not just in one’s head. We can’t claim to have faith and then go on with our merry lives. no, faith is not just thinking something. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is not just wishful thinking, we read here that faith is a confidence. It is the assurance of things hoped for, some translations even translate the term assurance as substance. Faith is not just wishing or hoping for something, faith is a something. Faith is not something that we just muster up on our own, faith is granted to us by God. Faith is not just looking forward to something — it is that, but not only that — but faith is something.

The writer of Hebrews allows us to linger on the life of Abraham and Sarah in order to illustrate faith.

One day Abraham, actually, before he was Abraham when he was Abram, was doing what he was doing living in Ur in Mesopotamia. However, God had a plan for him and his descendants that Abram didn’t know anything about. So God told him to get up and to leave his home, and to travel to the land that God was going to show to him. God promised to Abram that God would make a great nation from him. Now, when he and his wife Sarai were young, this would not have been an unheard of promise. But Abram and his wife were old, and while it may still be possible for Abram to father a child, the idea of Sarai mothering a child was pretty much unheard of. I can only imagine that Abram had a lot of doubts about this promise, but there must have been something within Abram — or rather something that God planted within Abram — that caused Abram to believe God, to have some sort of confidence about this.

Now, getting up and leaving one’s country in the ancient world was a bigger deal. There was no internet, no telephone, no postal mail. There was no Craig’s List to find an apartment. So Abram was leaving all that he knew, probably all that his father and his father’s father knew and he set out for who knows where on nothing but a promise from a God whom he didn’t knowingly have a particularly long history with — there was no Bible at the time — and he packed up his home, and loaded up his camels with all of their worldly possessions and left their home and headed west toward the setting sun, unsure of where exactly they will land.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that they lived in tents. In fact, for generations they lived in tents. They lived in tents because they were always strangers. Always sojourners, always travelers. They lived in tents because they were always journeying, never quite home. They lived in tents because they were never led to the place where they are able to stake out property and build a permanent home. They were always foreigners in a foreign land. A land which would become home to their descendants, but never home to them. It was a land in which Abram — who would become Abraham — would never see, would never have any tangible evidence of, but he lived in a tent and never arrived home to the “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

At some point, Abram says, “Wait a minute there God. You’ve made all of these promises to me, of being a great nation, but if you haven’t noticed, a great nation begins with a single descendant, but I don’t have any descendants, so I suppose that my great nation will have to be born from a servant in my house?”

But God, not one for clear and simple answers, takes him outside, outside of Abram’s tent and God points him to the sky. God says to Abram, “Do you see all of these stars? Count them if you can, because this many will be your descendants.” Abram, I can imagine, was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars which filled his eyes — it would have been magnificent. Those of us who live in the city can’t really quite understand what they view could have looked like, we have streetlights which obscure our view, but for Abram there would have been nothing else, save a fire to cast light which would have dimmed the brilliance of the stars that seemed to completely encircle him on the desert plain. God planted something within Abram much earlier, and we are told that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Even though Abram and Sarai were old, even though she was barren, even though there was no child to be the next in line for this great nation, Abram believed the LORD, and we read in Genesis that the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness, that this faith this belief, this assurance, confidence, the substance was enough. It was enough to allow Abram to move into the future that God was calling him into. Abram could have said, “That’s enough, I’m going back to Ur.” But he didn’t. He continued in the future that God is unfolding, a future that Abram will never see with his eyes, it is a future in which seeds are being planted but are not yet popping through the soil. It is a future which exists but is not yet evident. For Abram, then, this faith that he had was not just hope for something that he would possess in the future, something that he would have in the future. No, for Abram, this faith was the substance, it was the thing, it was what he had.

Abram would eventually have a child, Isaac. It would be through Isaac that this great nation would continue. Unfolding over time, piece by piece, little by little, and in fact, it is still not finished. Even after Abram became Abraham, he wouldn’t get to see the nation of Israel. He wouldn’t get to see Jerusalem. He wouldn’t get to see his descendants at home in this land that God was giving to them. He wouldn’t get to see “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

***

Although Abraham was the main story which is here for reflection, Abraham wasn’t the only ancestor of the faith who lived this kind of life. We can see it similarly with his son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Even before Abraham, God was not absent for Noah believed God when God instructed him to build an ark for God was going to send a flood.

You see, God called each of these out of their homes in one way or another. God called them out of their home, out of what they knew, and charged them with entering into a future into which they would never really enter.

When we think of this, we must ask ourselves, was their faith in vain? Did they live in a hope for nothing because they never saw the fulfillment of their hope?

We may think so. After all, faith and hope are supposed to be fulfilled within our lifetimes. We hope for something because we want it to come to be. We have faith, and we expect a pay-off for this faith.

Not at all, the writer of Hebrews tells us.  It is true that they they did not see the this-worldly fulfillment of what was promised, we read that “from a distance they saw and greeted [these promises]” (Heb 11:13). Faith is not just something which gets us something, faith is a form of courage, as we can see in the stories of our spiritual ancestors which launches us into a future with God, a future where we don’t know where it will lead, a future which might be uneasy, a future which we might not completely see, knowing simply that the future belongs to God, the future is one that God is unfolding.

God’s call to Abraham and Sarah was unique, but God’s call is general. While we won’t all have to get up and go to a far of nation and be told in our seventies that we will be the progenitor of a great nation, we are all people who are on a journey. We do not dwell in tents always moving to one place or another, but we don’t live with true foundations, we don’t find our true home in any particular place other than the city where God is the architect and builder.

Faith is the way by which we can hold fast to the promises of God, even if we don’t see the promise fulfilled with our own eyes. Faith is the way in which we boldly step out of our complacency, out of our selfishness, out of our comfort, our of what we know to be familiar and into the future that God is preparing. Faith isn’t simply expecting things to get better for us, faith is the assurance, confidence, substance that we are a part of God’s future which has been unfolding for longer than we can imagine and is continuing to unfold.

It is fitting, I think, that the writer of Hebrews speaks at some length of the story of Abraham and Sarah, a story with which all the original hearers of this story would be familiar. It is a story of a journey, a journey which never truly ends but where the end is always envisioned. It is the story of a promise in which fulfillment is certain, but never within a lifetime. It is a story in which people, are emboldened and encouraged by God to boldly step into God’s future with little other than the confidence that the future belongs to the trustworthy and faithful God.

Where can you relate to this? Perhaps you are not far from where you grew up, where you consider home.

I wonder if Abraham felt like he was wandering aimlessly. I wonder if Abraham felt like he was feeling out his way in the dark. I wonder if Abraham felt like turning back. Returning to what he knew, to what he could experience, to that with which he was familiar. But this is the thing that we can know that Abraham couldn’t. He made it to where he needed to go, even though he didn’t know where that was. He had a child, which he didn’t think was possible. He was the ancestor of a great people, a people of which, in Christ, we are a part. None of this Abraham saw, but when we read of this story, we can see his role in God’s continually unfolding story, God’s continuously arriving future.

You see, faith is not just wishful thinking. Faith is the thing that we grasp hold to when things don’t make sense. Faith is the thing which we grasp hold of when we feel as though we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Faith is the thing which strengthens us to take a step in a new direction, a direction which might not be clear, but a direction in which God is calling us. Faith is the home that we have when we don’t have our true home. Faith is the assurance, the confidence, the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

So what do we do when we feel as though we do not have faith? We pray for faith.

What do we do when our faith is less than consistent? We pray for a more steady faith. God is faithful and God is trustworthy. You see, God doesn’t leave us to our own devices to do this on our own. God provides the way, we simply have to take a step into it.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Hump Day Hymns: Welcome, Sweet Day of Rest

Hymnal

Welcome, sweet day of rest,
That saw the Lord arise;
Welcome to this reviving breast,
And these rejoicing eyes!

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

One day amidst the place
Where my dear God hath been,
Is sweeter than ten thousand days
Of pleasurable sin.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.
-Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

As a child, I dreaded Sundays. I did not like going to church, I did not like that the whole house slept in the afternoon, and I did not like that I was so mind-numbingly bored in my very small town whose streets rolled up on Sundays.

I recall hearing stories from my parents on their Sunday restrictions. Could ride bicycles, but only to the end of the block. Could play catch with a baseball, but no bat, because at that point it became a game. I remember being thankful, at least, that my parents were a little more liberal with their understanding of Sabbath rest. But, the importance of rest was still there, and the belief that working — particularly when one did not absolutely have to was to be avoided.

When I was young, my parents also avoided going into town to stores that were open on Sunday.

“Why?” I would ask.
“Because we are making them work.” they would respond.
“But they will be there anyway!” I protested.

But my protestation’s didn’t matter. I was the child and I followed the rules, I did not make them.

As I grew older, my schedule grew busier. Between school, band, theatre, employment, and trying to have a social life, Sunday rest became more difficult. No longer was it just boring on Sundays, it was a disruption in my life, a day which did not allow me to be productive, a day which surely must have been designed for a simpler and easier life of yesteryear. Surely when God gave the Sabbath commandment, God didn’t realize all that I had to do.

***

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss. (Emphases mine)

For me, being a rural Dutch Reformed Midwesterner at heart, sitting is difficult.

“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”

“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10a) is difficult. I am much better at “stay busy and try to remember that I am God.”

Sitting is hard, particularly when there is so much to do. I have been a busy-body all my life, and if there is a time when I do not need to do something, I make sure that I remain doing something, to ensure that I stay busy. Rest brings guilt.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the whole point of Sabbath rest — to be an interruption. To disrupt the rhythm of life, to throw on the emergency brake while speeding eighty miles-per-hour on the interstate. Perhaps it is supposed to feel the tension between resting while still having so much that needs to be done.

***

My spiritual director repeatedly encourages me to take walks in the middle of the day.

“Walk to the lake, take a stroll through the park, it doesn’t matter, but do it,” she tells me.
“But I have so much to do! I have to stay working,” I respond.
“Exactly,” she tells me. “You need to do this for two reasons. First, because you don’t have time, and that is precisely the reason to do it. Second, it is work, because it is reminding you that you are not in charge of everything, that everything does not lie on your shoulders. God is in there too.”

***

Sabbath still remains difficult for me. It is an interruption, and it requires trust and faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

I have a difficult time seeing how taking a day off — even going for a walk during the day — is going to work through the problems I face or the stresses that I bear. But perhaps that is the point.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).

I need to rest not because I can, but because I cannot. The Kingdom of God breaking into to the world is not painless and smooth. Perhaps the point of Sabbath is not to wait until you can stop, but rather simply to stop, and let God take care of some things. It is to remind us that we depend ultimately not on the work of our hands, but on God (who uses the work of our hands).

Easy to think about, hard to do.

Each day I understand a little better that Sabbath is not about what we can and cannot do, but rather, it is about experiencing the good that the world has to offer, it is about taking time special for God, it is about experiencing a little bit of the already in the midst of the not yet.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.

Deep seated pieties

As I closed my eyes, I felt moved to a different time, and a different space.

In becoming familiar with our denomination’s new hymnal, Lift Up Your Heartsthere was a hymn sing at the annual gathering of delegated Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Elders from the entire denomination from around the United States and Canada.

***

My faith was nourished by a steady diet of rural Midwestern Dutch Reformed fare. We take religion and faith seriously, and we take the church seriously. We sang hymns. At the time I hated it. I loathed the hymns, I did not appreciate the simple faith of my farming community. The organ was ancient, the practices were dated, and nothing reflected what I estimated to be a lived Christian faith.

My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
for thee all the follies of sin I resign;
my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

Ever since I have gone to seminary, I have not particularly appreciated the personal language when it comes to Jesus, I have come to learn that perhaps the language of Jesus as “mine” is not always the best way to think about our relationship to God. I often find myself trying to avoid hymns like this, as I find them theologically lacking, and simplistic in piety.

The hymn-sing selections where chosen to represent different types of pieties, of which this hymn is one. It is a familiar hymn, it was a hymn that felt like Sunday evenings in my Christian Reformed Church.

I love thee because thou hast first loved me
and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

The hymn was being accompanied by a piano, and I could hear people behind me harmonizing. I closed my eyes, and I felt that I was moved to a different place and a different time. For a moment I stopped singing and simply listened to the intimately familiar words of the hymn.

I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death,
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath,
and say when the deathdew lies cold on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I could hear the organ in my childhood church, and I could see the see the familiar faces who formed my faith. As I looked around my small country church, I saw a host of simple people, unrefined people, people of deep faith who loved God in their glorious ordinariness. At the time I wanted nothing more than to be rid of my church, but this hymn, reviled at the time, functioned almost as my heart language and brought me into deeper communion with the divine.

Despite how much I had desired to flee from my church of upbringing, rural Midwest Dutch Reformed pietism is so deeply imbedded into my very existence.

The piano began to crescendo in preparation for the final stanza

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

As I returned to my time and my particular place, tears streamed down my face as I knew not what else to do with my deep experience with God.

A Fresh Start

hatching

By Sarahluv on Flickr (cc)

The lure of a fresh start is ubiquitous. The idea that we are not tied to our past, that we are not destined to repeat the mistakes we had made, the idea that change and redemption is possible, and if only we could make a fresh start without our past following us, we could live into who we are supposed to be.

This is why we make New Year’s resolutions. A new year is a fresh start. The image for the old year is an very old man, with a long white beard, slumped over a cane. Conversely, the new year is a small child who has their whole life ahead of them, no past to follow them. So we make resolutions to do things, to be better people. Resolutions that will help us to be the people we want to be. We make resolutions because we can, in a way, start afresh. Like many people, this year I will resolve to lose weight (again), and I will resolve to stop procrastinating (again), and I will resolve to be more organized (again).

I like fresh starts, and I will guess that you do too.

This is the beauty of Advent. Advent provides a time for the church year to start over, but also for each of us to refocus our lives, both individually and as a body. Advent, of course, is more than simply a season in the church year, Advent is a orientation of life in which we are always standing in the already (Christ has already come and redemption has begun), looking forward to the not yet (Christ has not yet returned and redemption is not yet accomplished). It is fitting, then, that the first season in the Church calendar is one that models what the rest of the year is to be — always living in the tension that the reign of God has come, but has not yet fully arrived.

In Deeply Loved, Keri Wyatt Kent discusses the practice of “Review of the Day” which is a recovery of the ancient practice of the Examen of Consciousness. Far from simply ruminating on our shortcomings, a practice of retrospective remembering where God was faithful even in times in which we were not; where God showed up even in times when we did not. This daily look on the past day solely exists to help us tomorrow. We only have a future because we have a past.  Several times in scripture, we are told to remember. We remember the past because it illumines the path before us.

Advent is a season of repentance, which requires looking back, but looking back only so that we can move forward. It is so fitting that Advent is a time in which we examine the past year, not only individually, but corporately as well.

I look back at my past year and I can see God working, but I also see places where I didn’t realize that God was working.  I see times in which I was faithless, times that I would love to do over. I can see times in which I was so wrapped up in the hurry of life, that I have forgotten to pay any attention to God, and I can see where, regardless, God continues to pay attention to me.

I am sure I am not alone here.

Advent is about new beginnings. Advent brings a fresh start. We look back so that we can move forward.

We live in the already, and we remember the already because it points us toward the not yet, and this is where the good news is in all of this.

So this Advent, not only am I slowing down, I am also looking back, because this is the only way that we can look forward.

***************************************************************************
This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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Meeting God at Lake Michigan

The breeze was cool and the geese honked as they flew overhead. Right in front of the dock on which I am sitting, I listed to a rowboat quietly skimming across the surface of the water, the only sound to be heard is the oars dipping into the water to propel the small boat toward one of the sailboats anchored in the harbor.

The water lapped against the posts supporting the dock on which I sat.

I love water. I can’t swim and I don’t have a boat but I love the water. I grew up near Lake Michigan and now I live on the other side of Lake Michigan. It has been an important part of my life. I have never lived apart from Lake Michigan. I have a strange attraction to water.

A large body of water like Lake Michigan continually influences life in the areas surrounding it. In summer it moderates the temperature and keeps it slightly cooler than other areas. In winter the moderation keeps it slightly warmer than other areas. The Lake can greatly increase snowfall and can suddenly change the projection of storms.

One of my favorite things to do is just sit by the lake. I could do this for hours. Perhaps it is the rhythmic sound of the water, perhaps it is the ripple pattern that appears when a gentle breeze moves over the surface. Perhaps it is the fact that many cities, including the one I live in, owe their entire existence to water. Perhaps it is the paradoxical nature of water: it gives life and destroys life. Nothing can live without water, yet water also holds potential for great destruction.

Water also has great religious significance as well. It was with water that God purified the earth (Genesis 7-8), it was through water that God liberated God’s people from slavery (Exodus 14), it was with water that God sustained God’s people in the desert (Exodus 17:1-7), and it was with water that John the Baptizer prepared the way for Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:1-11).

“Water cleanses; purifies; refreshes; sustains…” as the baptismal liturgy reads. “…Jesus Christ is living water.”

* * *

When I look across Lake Michigan it seems as though I can see forever. Like it never ends.

For me, Lake Michigan is a thin place – a place where heaven and earth meet. Just like the sky and the water deeply embrace at the horizon.

“…With Sighs Too Deep for Words”

prayer..

By Aronki (Dae Ho Lee) on Flickr

I had an out-of-town meeting yesterday, about an hour away.  On my way to this meeting, the distance provided me with one full hour of unstructured alone time.  I was not reading, I was not making telephone calls, I was not having people stop by my office, and I was not writing.

I had an hour of uninterrupted time to spend some time praying.  I had a lot on my mind, after all.  I was worried about a family in our church that just had their power shut off, I was wondering where the new leaders in our church would arise from, I was wondering if we would have enough money to be able to finish the year, I was concerned that violence continues to cast a dark cloud over our neighborhood.  I felt a weighty burden on my shoulders.  Often times, the only thing that I am able to do is to pray.

The words would not come out.  I could not even think the words that I wanted to say.  I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew the type of things that I wanted to express, but I could not.  In my desperation I let out a big sigh.

It was then that I remembered a verse from the Letter to the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, NRSV).

I wondered, perhaps, if this is the experience to which this passage refers.  There are times in which we feel an oppressive weight upon our shoulders, when our hearts are burdened.  When we find it difficult to focus or concentrate, or even make words.  There are always times in which we feel as though we are barely treading water and as though our pockets are filled with stones.  These are times in which praying can be difficult.

How ironic that there are some very difficult times, times in which we most need to pray, that it is difficult to do so. This is particularly difficult for me, as words are the way in which I make my living and the way in which I live out my calling.  I interpret the words of scripture, and I use words to explain scripture and why it matters to those in my congregation.  I use words to offer up common prayers with and on behalf of my congregation.  I use words to comfort those who are sick, I use words to celebrate the sacraments, I use words to help those entrusted to my care to try to make sense of God, their lives, and how God impacts their lives.  Words are what I do.

There are, however, times in which words are never enough.  When people grieve, sometimes the ministry of being is more important than the ministry of words.  Words are useful only insofar as they communicate something which needs to be communicated.  There is something, though, of the human condition which is ineffable, which cannot be expressed within the limits of language. Sometimes there is something so beautiful and wonderful that words cannot do it justice; other times there is so much burden and that words cannot express the depths of despair.

At these times, perhaps, it is best simply to remain silent knowing what is on one’s heart and mind.  Perhaps, at these times, when words cannot suffice, words need not be necessary because presence with another person and/or presence with God is enough.  When something limited like language cannot express what we need to express, there is a communication which is far deeper than words.