Monday, December 10, 2018


                                            Luke 3:1-6
Malachi 3:1-6

               I read this story recently reflecting on how we see our resources and how we use them:   

She asked him, 'How much are you selling the eggs for?'

The old seller replied, '$.25 an egg, Madam.'

She said to him, 'I will take 6 eggs for $1.25 or I will leave.'

The old seller replied, 'Come take them at the price you want. Maybe, this is a good beginning because I have not been able to sell even a single egg today.'

She took the eggs and walked away feeling she had won. She got into her fancy car and went to a posh restaurant with her friend. There, she and her friend, ordered whatever they liked. They ate a little and left a lot of what they ordered. Then she went to pay the bill. The bill costed her $100.00. She gave $110.00 and asked the owner of the restaurant to keep the change.

               I saw something very similar to this when I was a college student in Guatemala.  We visited an outdoor market where extremely poor people were selling the work of their own hands.  Some were so poor that they did not have shoes, and were wearing very old and worn clothing.  One of the young men who went down with us prided himself on his ability to haggle.  At one booth a woman was selling beautifully embroidered backpacks for $10 each.  My friend haggled her down to $1, and was so proud of his accomplishment.  But another member of our group went up to the woman and asked her how long it had taken her to embroider the bag.  It had been very carefully stitched and she admitted to us that it had taken the better part of a week.  A week’s worth of hard work for $1.  My friend said, “Your work is worth more.  I will pay the difference.” And she handed her a $20 bill.  The tears of gratitude in the woman’s face spoke volumes to both of us.

          But the young man travelling with us saw this interaction and was outraged.  He said, “you took away her dignity by not honoring the haggling!  If it was really a hardship to her, she would not have made the sale!”  My friend replied, “sometimes a dollar and the food that it can buy, no matter how little, is more needed and therefore a person is willing to lower their price to make the sale.  That is not about giving them dignity by honest haggling.  It is about giving them wanting to live another day.  It also does not give a person dignity to fail to honor the amount of work she put into making that bag.  You did not honor the care and artistry of that work.  No, we gave her her dignity back by honoring the great work she had done.”

               In a similar way, I have known of other people who willingly and intentionally buy items made by poorer people, sometimes paying high prices for them, even though the items are not needed.  In one such case a child saw his father giving even more than was asked for something cheaply sold at an outdoor market.  The child asked why?  To which the father replied, "It is a charity wrapped with dignity, my child.”

               Those moments where vision is bigger than our pocket books, where care and compassion are bigger than our fear of not having enough for ourselves, where a choice to honor the work of another is bigger than our need to have a good deal: those are moments that reflect the promise stated today in the book of Luke, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” 

         These small acts of care and compassion: these are responses to the invitation we have from God  to be part of ushering in this new era, this new hope, this new possibility.  These are steps towards bringing the mountains down and filling the valleys.  They are steps towards an even-ing of the plains, evening of the resources, a leveling out of the abundance. 

               Someone said recently, “The powerful are doing what they want.  And the poor are suffering what they must.”  This is not a new thing, as our scriptures show us.  This is something that goes on in every age.  The promise of Advent, the promise of today’s scripture lessons is that God calls us to something different and is about creating that different thing.  The hard part of this is that we are part of those rich folk, just by having places to live, the choice to eat out at restaurants, houses filled with things we don’t “need” but simply want, we are part of the group of mountains that will be brought lower.  I know that’s not a comfortable idea, but I know it pains God to see us spend $100 on a meal when there are children starving to death who could eat for a week on that money that we’ve spent on ourselves.  That is the bad news: in this new kingdom that God is ushering in, we will not have the wealth and riches we have now. 

But the Good News for us is that we are invited to be part of that new creation, invited to be part of ushering in something different for ourselves, for our communities and for the world.

               And that is what is most important here.  This isn’t really about individuals. While we each are called into action, this image of hills and valleys and mountains is big because it is meant to be.  The original concepts of sin and wrongs was not individual but corporate.  And these images that are big: mountains, valleys, are so for a purpose.  Richard Rohr said it like this, “(The Advent scriptures)… focus… on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called "structural sin" and "institutional evil"). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular "naughty behaviors," which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture. Structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large organizations--including the Church--and governments get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. Yet individuals are condemned for committing these same sins. Such a convenient split will never create great people, nations, or religions.”  And it is exactly what is being confronted by passages such as what we read today.

             There are signs of hope, both at an individual level and at a bigger level. I think about the work of organizations such as Contra Costa Interfaith Housing.  They provide an increasing amount of housing for people who would otherwise slip through the cracks.  Some of their housing is for families on the economic edge, some of it is for people with mental or physical disabilities, also living on the edge, and some is for individuals who have simply fallen through the cracks: who did not have the support, the network when things went bad for them, to stand on their own.  I’m more aware of this than ever since moving back here to CA. When we first moved back here, the kids and I were without a “home”, without a steady place to live, for several months.  I had work: but in this area housing costs are so high that I was unable to rent a three bedroom apartment anywhere out here (and believe me, we tried!).  We had a very hard time affording a home to buy,  and were only able to finally get into housing by first, buying a total fixer-upper, but second, with the help both of the church and of my parents.  In those few months where we were struggling to find housing, we flipped around from friend’s couch to family couch.  Without a home address I was unable to register my kids for school. Without a home address I was unable to get a California driver's license.  Without a home address I couldn't even obtain a library card, or a grocery discount card.  Without the California driver's license, other doors were closed to me as well.  I couldn't get anything notarized, I couldn't set up a bank account, I couldn't get local checks.  In each of those cases I not only had to give an address, but had to provide "proof of residency", something I simply could not provide.  There was no address to forward my mail to. There was no place to receive my bills.  Without "free wifi" places like Starbucks, I really would have struggled to do basic things like paying bills and staying in touch with those who could help us along the way. Without a cell phone I really would have been sunk in terms of how to connect with the resources that would help us to get "un"-homeless.  Without my car...well, there is just nothing we would have been able to do.

Financially, moving across the country, trying to get into housing, dealing with still having a house to sell in Ohio - none of that would have been possible without, again, the safety net and resources of other people: the financial help of my extended family and the church, for example. The fact that I had a decently paying job also made a huge difference.   And yet even with that job, I needed help financially.  I learned it is extremely expensive to be homeless, and to move, and to set up in a new place.  If something had happened to my parents during that time?  All of us would have been in serious trouble.   This is the reality of people we call “homeless”.  These are folk, most of the time, who simply do not have the safety net that we had.  Perhaps they also don’t have the training and education that allows them to get a better paying job.  But even if they did have that, I can tell you from my own experience, it just would not be enough.

Organizations like CCIH provide that safety network, that support so that families and individuals do not have to fall through the cracks.  They are striving, in a small way, to help bring the mountains down and to raise the valleys up: it is something that you participate in, it is a way of ushering in the new era, of doing “advent”, of following God’s call.

               Bonhoeffer said,  “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself…. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”  And then, “Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?  Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger”

               Today we light the candle of peace.  And we are reminded that there is no peace where there is injustice, where there is inequity, where there is pain and suffering.  And as people of faith, we are called to be part of ushering that in.  At Advent we look for that way towards peace, towards justice, towards a raising of the valleys and a bringing of the mountains low.  We look for God’s movement in this, and we look for the ways in which God calls us to participate in ushering this in as well.  It is an amazing gift to be part of this work.  It is a celebration of God-with-us when we can share in this glorious hope for a world in which all have enough and no one is in need.  Thanks be to God that God-with-us is a reality not only 2000 years ago, but today as well as we see God in each other, as we experience God through our own work, as we live faithful and loving lives.  Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Friending, Unfriending, the complexities of relationships...

         I've been thinking about friends and relationships and vulnerability lately, in particular as we've heard back from folk we've invited to our wedding.  Several wonderful, deeply joyous "yesses" have come in from people we didn't expect to come (because of distance and therefore the cost of getting out here) but who have decided to make the trip for our special day. Those have been truly uplifting, affirming, deeply meaningful and very exciting for us.
         On the other hand, there have also been a handful of folk we really hoped would come, people we have loved and do love dearly who have responded with "no".  Some of those have been very painful for David, or for me, or in some cases for both of us.  We have, whether right or wrong, taken those "nos" as an indication that we are not valued to the same depth with which we value the other, and that has hurt. With a couple of folk, it has actually caused me to pause, consider the nature of our friendships, and wonder if I needed to take another distancing step... "unfriend" from Facebook, for example; or at least move the friend into the "acquaintance" category of those who see less of my posts, and those whose posts I no longer see regularly.  Of course in many ways that is a very childish response on my part.  I see it as such.  I know that if I cared less, I would react with less extremism, and that the fact I even consider a distancing act is a sign of how much I really do care. Therefore any such action on my part is more likely to hurt me than the other person anyway. I recognize the impulse for what it is: a desire to strike out at someone who has hurt me. And I see that the one who would ultimately be hurt by that striking out is myself. So I let my revenge fantasies fly for a few minutes, and then I breathe, take a step back, acknowledge the pain for a moment and then make the decision to behave better.
          Still, I'm left with the realization that inviting people to something this important to us is an act of deep vulnerability.  It is so deeply vulnerable that I have thought, more than once, that we probably just should have eloped and avoided the entire big production.  And yet I know that if we had made that choice, other people would be hurt instead.  Also, the decision to celebrate what has been five years in the making is an opportunity to spend time with folk we don't regularly get to see, and to honor that our relationship does not exist in a bubble.  I believe in the collective connections of our relationships and our community.  We would not be where we are without the family and friends that have surrounded and supported us, that continue (in most cases) to surround and support us.  And so, the wedding is a celebration not only of our coming together, but for me, of all the relationships that have made ours a possibility and a blossoming reality.
          I know some of you will say that our reaction to the "nos" are just over-sensitivity on our parts. So let me just clarify, that not every "no" produces this response in us.  It is just a few very specific folk with specific ways of saying "no" that are causing the pain.  At the same time, there is no doubt that both David and I carry some scars that make us much more likely to jump into feeling rejected than might be warranted.  Still, acts of vulnerability, such as inviting loved ones to a wedding, are risky because they do sometimes bring clarity about where people stand and how deeply people value their relationships to you.  Other times the assumptions we make based on peoples' behavior are inaccurate. But regardless, I think events like this can change relationships, either by making clear what they really are, or by creating assumptions about what others feel that have consequences.  In the bravest folk, perhaps these hurts are invitations for deeper conversations about what a person values and how deeply a person cares about another.  But after the initial hurt, it is hard to take that next step into even greater risk.
         The point?  Relationships are hard.  They are complex.  They are, by nature, risky; and the choice to be in relationships creates a vulnerability that sometimes leaves us wounded.  I wish it were otherwise. I know I have done my share of wounding as well as being hurt.  And for that I'm sorry.  But still I choose to step into that vulnerability. I choose it and pray for the grace of gratitude and joy in the face of the unexpected depths and gifts; as well as for healing and wisdom in the face of the disappointments.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

An amazing gift received. Grace again and again.

          I was invited/asked/hired to play piano for one of the many choirs at our local Catholic church.  That in itself is a long story, but the short of it: we have a strong ecumenical community here and so I've played piano for several joint Ecumenical services at the Catholic church.  I was asked by the director who had heard me play at those services if I would accompany one of the choirs that tends to be more Ecumenical in nature (three of my parishioners are part of the choir) and that usually sings for memorial services (the Catholic church here is huge, so memorial services are common occurrences).  I debated about taking on a second job, but frankly needed the money to help pay for college for my daughter.  David had been out of work, too, and that was putting a huge strain on all of us.  Also, I haven't been playing piano regularly and the reality is if you don't use it you lose it.  And finally, for me playing the piano is part of my soul, part of my being, it feeds me, so it feels important. Having a place to play regularly felt like a gift to me.  I ran it by our session and they were okay with my taking this on.  Still, I've continued to struggle with this decision, in part because I was already working more hours than I probably should and to add in another job, even a small one...
       That was all before last night.  This choir that I accompany is putting on a concert this Saturday evening, and last night we had our first full rehearsal with the orchestra.  For the first time in a very long time, I was playing with a 14 member full orchestra (including full piano - my part, and full organ - my congregation's organist, Dale, playing that part), as well as the 33 member choir.  I cannot articulate how it felt for me.  I was transported, as I haven't been in a long time, into a place that was beyond this world.  The thin veil between here and eternity (which for me is not about 'forever' but is something that happens when we are moved outside of time and space into the place of Holy, of Spirit, of … well, again, words fail me) was absolutely torn apart.  To be able to be a living, breathing part of that music was suddenly and unexpectedly a gift so deeply received into my being that I felt moved beyond the physical completely and utterly.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of making this incredible sound, to be creating music that was beautiful and meaningful and heavenly (in the non-hokey, best sense of that word).
       And, as gratitude often does, it carried through to a fuller look at my life right now as well.  I have the gift of serving a congregation that is doing good things in this community, that is loving and caring and focused strongly on justice and compassion work.  I've been extremely busy at work lately, but it is all good things, work that feels like it has meaning and purpose and value.  My parishioners join me in amazing commitments to service and love to one another and the larger community and world.  I have three incredible children, the eldest of whom will be coming back for Christmas break in just fourteen days (not that I'm counting).  I am about to be married (four weeks from today) to a man who is incredibly kind and good to me and my kids.  I have an amazing group of friends in my life who add depth and wealth to each and every day.  The rain has cleared the air and the hills are becoming green with new life.  And then there is this gift of music...
        We are given gifts; training, education, talents, opportunities, people, invitations, resources, etc.  And I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the gifts that have come my way.  Today the gift that overwhelms me is this chance to play piano and the opportunities for concerts such as Saturday's.
        But it also leads me to reflect at a much deeper level on the concept of grace.  I look at the list of things for which I was grateful last night, and I realize that all of it came through grace.  I didn't ask to be invited to accompany this choir.  I didn't seek out this position. It came to me, unexpectedly and unsought.  Frankly, I never asked to take piano lessons in the first place: that too was a gift of grace that came to me in an unexpected and strange way.  I was terribly sick in first grade: missed several months of school as a result.  The neighbor offered to come into our home and teach me piano so that I'd be doing something when I couldn't be up for more than a half hour at a time for so long. I didn't want to take piano, but I did. When David first reached out to speak to me, I hesitated about whether or not to engage him.  If I'd walked away... well, I wouldn't have what I have now! Over the course of my life, many of my closest friends were people I initially wasn't sure I wanted to know more fully.  My children... well, let's just say that they didn't come into our lives when we expected.  And the list goes on.
        The gifts are there, always. Always there are new moments of grace, opportunities being offered, invitations being put forth, possibilities that arise. Sometimes we say "yes" with hesitation, sometimes we don't say "yes" at all, and sometimes we dive in.  All of those things: all of those unexpected twists and turns that change our lives, that invite us into new blessings: all of that is grace.  In the same way it was grace that helped me to SEE the depth and gift of what last night's rehearsal was for me, despite the struggle I've had internally about whether or not I should take it on.
            What I'm left with is the reflection that perhaps I am being called once again to be more open to seeing where the unexpected invitations and opportunities and gifts lead, and to be less hesitating about accepting the invitations when they come.  But that is for tomorrow.  For today, I am sitting in the grace, soaking in the experience, deeply grateful for what I've been given.

Monday, December 3, 2018

"Interesting" Attitudes from Volunteer Coordinators...

     As I've done my usual volunteer activities at various places over the last month, I was struck with a weird sense that at several of these places, I was meeting the same person with different faces, and it was a person I thought very ill-fitted for the job of managing volunteers.  To be more specific, these are people who seem extremely controlling of the people they are in the position to oversee.  Keeping in mind that the people who are coming to work for them are volunteers donating their time for something they believe in, the managers overbearing, unkind, and extremely picky behavior could potentially chase off the people they need in order to provide the service.  So I've found myself thinking and reflecting a great deal this last month on what is really going on with these volunteer managers.
       To give specifics: I was helping prepare food at a place that serves the poorer community out here with daily meals (not going to name te place... not fair since they really do a wonderful service in the community).  One other woman and I were cutting vegetables for a salad, when the person who was in charge that day came over and was very, well, clear about the fact that she wanted the vegetables cut all uniform (whether they were carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, radishes, bell peppers, onions, etc.) in these extremely precisely sized cubes.  Not only was this impossible for me, but I could not figure out why this was necessary.
         Finally, I just asked, "Why do all of these vegetables need to be exactly the same shape and size?"
        "Well, some of the guests don't have teeth."  I stared down at the vegetables.  That didn't actually answer the question for me.  There was no way that someone without teeth was going to be able to handle a carrot of any shape or size, and I thought that if all the vegetables were exactly this same cubed size and shape, it actually might be harder on the guest to pick the carrots out.  I did not voice this.  I was just baffled.  Well, I tried to do my best to produce the cuts she wanted, but again, I was just simply not gifted in this cubed cutting thing and eventually she came over and recut everything that both I and the other woman who was also trying her best but not meeting the manager's standards, had done.
         Okay.  That's fine.  Except I probably will not volunteer to cut vegetables again when she is in charge.  I don't need to waste my time if it's going to be redone anyway.  And I continue to think her extremism around this was actually not helping in the way she believed it would.
        Second scenario: also a place our church volunteers each month.  This time it was a ministry in which guests are offered multiple services.  They come to wash their clothes (which the serving churches pay for), they are served a hot meal, sometimes someone comes to offer hair cuts, and the guests can pick up all kinds of clothing and packaged foods to take home with them, whatever and wherever home may be.  My encounter here was with a different woman, but I've run into her each time we've gone to this location.  The first time I met her, we had a huge bin full of socks.  I know that socks are often one of the clothing items most needed by our homeless population, so I was happily putting the socks out on the table with the other clothing items for folk to pick up.  This woman came over to me, "Oh no!  We don't put the socks out.  We don't give them socks unless they ask for them.  And if they ask, give them only one pair each!"
         Again, ever inquisitive me, "Why?"
         "Well, because if we put out more, they would take them."
          Well, yes, isn't that the point?  I'm confused.  I thought we were trying to get rid of the donated items.  They aren't for us, we don't need them.  The point of this is to give away the things that are needed, isn't it?
          Then the last time I went, I was standing at the packaged foods table, putting out cans and pastas and other foods.  One man came over and asked if I had any Vienna Sausages.  As it turned out, there were a couple cans, so I found them and gave them to him.  At that point the same woman bustled over, "Don't give a person more than one can!"
          Undoubtedly, she has gotten used to my responses every time she gives me an order, but none the less, I persist, "Why?"
         "Well, it's greedy on their part!"  Again, I just found myself confused.  We hand out the food to folk over the course of a few hours.  But the number of people who approach the table asking for canned foods is not huge.  Probably one person every 5-10 minutes.  There were piles and piles of canned foods behind me waiting to be put out.  So why are we not willing to give a person two cans of something he specifically requested?  There obviously was more than enough, not a high demand.  And equally obviously, the food has been donated for the purpose of being given away.  I have no doubt the man who asked for the sausages will not waste them.  So why be stingy in this way?
           I know that I am part of the issue here.  First of all, I don't like being bossed around, micromanaged, snipped at, yelled at, when I am trying to do my best.  Secondly, I have my own opinions about how people should be served, and I believe we should work from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. That naturally will mean that I will lean towards giving more when others might be working from a more fearful, "we might not have enough" thinking.  Third, while hearing and acknowledging the woman at the second place, I also choose to ignore her mandates and continue to give from that place of abundance, so in this way, I cause her to "keep a wary eye on me."
          But I also see that this personality, the one who micromanages the volunteers, keeps showing up at so many of these places.  I've given you two examples.  But I have seen this same personality type at many of the places I've volunteered, often controlling, and even bullying, the volunteers. I've also heard my parishioners and friends talking about this personality at other volunteer places they have served, not just here but in every state where I've lived. So it also causes me to think.  Why does this personality keep showing up in these volunteer locations?  Why does the volunteer manager behave in this controlling, stingy, rigid, legalistic and overbearing way with consistency?  Why does she insist on asserting her authority in this bossy and unkind way?
          I think there are several things going on. One is a simple need for these people to claim power somewhere in their lives.  Perhaps these service locations are the only place where they have authority and so they take it, assert it, insist on making it known.  Maybe they are worried they will lose their position of power and authority if they don't assert it in an aggressive way.  Perhaps they went into the position for the very reason that they needed a place where they had some power or control.  Perhaps they are used to being shut down in other places and they are simply reflecting how other people have managed them in other situations.  
         Second, I think many people do work from a more legalistic and structured world view than I am used to, and they need those rules and that structure to be in place where they lead. There may not even be real reasons anymore for the rules that are in place, but maybe at one time there were.  And those rules have remained even when the reasons behind them no longer exist.  They give the person a sense of comfort, knowing the structure, knowing the boundaries.  This may especially be important when there are people who are not always behaving in socially acceptable ways.  Sometimes those we serve act unpredictably and so having rules may offer order in the midst of a bit of chaos.
        I'm sure there are other reasons as well.  
        I am grateful to the many people who continue to serve even when pushed around, because they believe deeply in the work they are doing.  I know my own parishioners, while they find the behavior of these managers irritating and occasionally annoying, will not be put off by it.  They believe in what they are doing, they have a strong sense of their own self-worth and will treat any belittling or controlling behavior as an issue of the person acting this way, rather than a slight to them.  I am grateful for that response.  I wish everyone had it.  
          I continue to worry that this managerial stance will turn some folk away from service who would otherwise have an opportunity to learn, to grow, to serve, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.  But I realize I don't have control over that.  So I will do my part to challenge rules that I feel are unjust, to offer a different perspective when I think the rule being enforced is failing to take into account the real situation.  I will also try to support those I see being bullied.  But mostly, I am using the experiences I've had volunteering to look at my own behavior when I am leading volunteers, and to strive to offer a different model for how to lead: not one of micromanaging and mistrusting my volunteers, but one of trust, openness, flexibility and giving a lot of latitude.  I believe in the gifts of my folk, their discernment and their ability to see and do ministry with grace and love.  I believe the Holy Spirit works through them, their vision, and their efforts even when they have a different world view and different way of doing things than my own.  Being the volunteer (rather than the manger) is a good reminder to me of what I choose not to present, not to model, not to be in my leadership positions. And for that I am deeply grateful. 

Reading Signs

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10

Luke 21:25-36

In today’s lesson from Luke, Jesus is talking about a new day coming.  He is announcing what that will look like when the new earth begins.  But the pictures that he draws are not pretty.  “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.   People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”  These catastrophes, these crises, these traumas, they are the sign of the new world coming, a new life coming.  They are the sign that things are changing.  Do we experience these things now?  Of course we do, as did the Israelites in their time as well.  People are in anguish.  People do become terrified, anxious and perplexed.  This happens in all times.  And the message to us is two things.  First, when horrible things are happening, these are invitations for us to rely more fully on God, to trust in God knowing that God is with us in these changes, in these challenges.  And second, we are called to remember that these difficult signs and hard times are actually fertile ground for new birth, for new life, for a resurrection that comes again and again, and again. 

I’m reminded of a quote I saw recently. “When you’re in a dark place, you sometimes tend to think you’ve been buried.  Perhaps you’ve been planted.  Bloom!”

Today we begin the new church year.  The church year begins with Advent, not New Year’s.  But like New Year’s day, in the church we are called to begin the new church year with anticipation of the new life that is coming, as we look towards Jesus being born anew into our lives.  We remember that out of whatever chaos we have and do experience, new life will come, is coming, has come.  And we are invited to celebrate that today. Today is a chance for a new start, a new look, a new approach to our lives.  It is not that we forget what has gone on before.  Trying to avoid what has happened rather than incorporating it into our beings means that we fail to heal from it.  Denying things that have happened leads to them coming out in strange and unresolved ways. Instead, we have to take our experiences, all of our experiences, incorporate them into our beings and allow them to help God in transforming our lives for the better. 

In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula struggles to find balance between family traditions and desires for her, with what she hopes for and sees as fulfilling a dream for her future.  She falls in love and decides to marry a non-Greek man, and her father, in particular, feels betrayed by this, forbids it at first, is angry and hurt by it.  Toula struggles because she loves her family and does not want to hurt them.  But as her brother finally says to her, “don’t let your past dictate who you are but let it be part of who you will become.”

            We carry our past with us.  But we decide, by our choices about how to deal with that past, if it will hinder us, bind us, control us, hold us captive and refuse to let us go or heal; or if it will inform our future, lead us into a place of new growth, new healing, new challenge, and new life.  There is a wonderful book that I’ve shared with you before called The Beethoven Factor.  In it Paul Pearsall talks about the different responses people have to crisis.  He says we are aware of two of those responses: we’ve all heard of victims and we are also aware of survivors.  Victims are people who stay in that place of being victims, who cannot heal from their pain, cannot get past it but live in that.  They often become bitter, cynical, dysfunctional and stuck in an endless cycle of loss.  Survivors are people who fare better, but who still wear their experiences in a way that limits them and continues to define them.  But he then identifies a third group of people, a group that he believes is exemplified in the person of Beethoven.  As he tells it, “There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but because of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”  Thrivers, people who are able, with God’s help, to take their challenges and create new life from them, be part of resurrection, be part of seeing the new, that is what we are called to be.

            In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding Toula discusses with her mom the struggle she is facing between the needs or concerns of her family and her own decisions about what will lead her into the life she wants for herself.  And her mother, in her wisdom, says this, “My village saw many wars.  Turkish, German.  They all made a mess.  And my mother said, ‘We’re lucky to be alive.’ And I thought, we’re not lucky to be alive.  We’re not lucky when they are telling us where we should live, what we should eat!  Nobody has that right!  And then I see you and I see your sister and your brother.  We came here for you.  So you could live.  I gave you life, so that you could live it.”

            God came to give us LIFE so that we could LIVE it.  That doesn’t come without going through pain and struggle.  It doesn’t come without challenge to our understandings of the world, to our very being, to our comfort.  But we are invited to move through pain and into a new year, into new life, into a new beginning.  

I want to end today by reminding you of the Old Testament readings.  From Jeremiah we heard:  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” 

And from the Psalm we heard:  “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.”  When we trust in God, we can live in the hope that the new life will be glorious and full of God’s love and care.

            Sister Joan Chittister said, “The essence of happiness... is having something to do, something to love and something to hope for. At the outset of the liturgical year, the church presents (us) with a model: a Child who lives only to do the will of God, who opens his arms to love the entire world, who lives in hope of the coming of the reign of God by giving his life to bring it.”  Jesus gave us his life, his teaching, his love: he risked his own life and died because of those commitments: he did all of that, that we might live.  We honor Jesus then by choosing the new life, a life of hope, that he would have us live.  As we begin our new year, I invite all of us to begin again, to search for meaning not by letting go of the past but by incorporating it into our beings, moving through all of the lessons and challenges and gifts we’ve been given, and inviting God to make us new.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Different Kind of King

2 Sam 23:1-7
John 18:33-38a

Throughout the book of John, Jesus uses the phrase “I am”.  This begins in chapter 6 when he is calming the sea.  He says to the terrified disciples, “I am.  Be not afraid.”  And he continues throughout the book of John, over and over with these phrases that begin with those two words, “I am”.  He says, “I am the bread of life”(6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), and “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14: 6), “I am the gate” (10:7), “I am the shepherd.” (10:11),  “I am the true vine” (15:1) .  Other times he simply says, “I am” in phrases such as “If you don’t believe that I am, you will die”(18:24) and “You will know that I am” (18:28), “I assure you, before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58).  Chapter 18 then begins with Jesus saying several times simply, “I am”.   All of these “I am” statements are statements in which Jesus is using a phrase that hitherto had only been used to refer to God: it harkens back to the Old Testament story of God appearing to Moses, giving to Moses the name of God as being simply “I am”.   John’s readers would have known this and realized what was being said here.  We hear in these verses a proclamation of Messiahship. A statement that in him God was to be found, a direct look at who God is, what God is like, what it means to be God in this world through Jesus.
Today then we come to the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  I wonder when you think about Jesus what you think his primary purpose here was.  We can think of many purposes.  A mirror into God, a model for how to live as faithful people, an example of what Love really looks like.  But this is not what Jesus himself says.  It doesn’t tell us his purpose is death or resurrection, or salvation from sins, or any of the theological reasons we might suppose.  No, instead, in this discussion with Pilate, he states very clearly and very simply that his purpose in coming is to testify to the truth.   Pilate then ends today’s readings with the simple question, “What is truth?”
But as we know, this “simple” question is anything but simple.
Frederick Buechner says this about Truth in his book Wishful Thinking: a theological ABC: “When Jesus says that he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’  Contrary to the traditional view that his question is cynical, it is possible that he asks it with a lump in his throat.  Instead of Truth, Pilate has only expedience.  His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient.  Pilate views man as alone in the universe with nothing but his own courage and ingenuity to see him through.  It is enough to choke up anybody.  Pilate asks What is truth?  And for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him.  The sound they make is like the sound of empty pails falling down the cellar stairs.  Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question.  He just stands there.  Stands, and stands there.”
Jesus stands there.  The one who has declared over and over “I am” stands there.  “I am” stands there.  And that is the truth that he presents.  His truth is simply that he is.  The truth to which he testifies is that God IS.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  And we know that Jesus was not the kind of king that we all understand every other king to be.  He is not the kind of king, as he states in today’s passage, who has guards who will fight for him and prevent him from being killed.  He is not the king of power, the king of might, the king of an iron fist.  He is not the king who collects all the wealth to himself, the king who says some people are better, more important, more valuable than others.  Instead he is the kind of king who allows his subjects to kill him and who dies begging for forgiveness FOR those who are killing him.  He is the kind of king who then comes back from death to reassure and offer life to the very people who killed him.  He is not the kind of king who caters to the wealthy and powerful, but instead is the kind of king who reaches out to the marginalized and powerless.  He is not the kind of king who luxuriates in riches and in being served by others, but instead is the kind of king who serves others continually.  He is the kind of king who IS king simply because he IS.  He is the kind of king who shows us how to live life by being who he is, by becoming who he becomes, the kind of king who will be who he will be.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks – WE ask.  And for an answer we are given Jesus, the king, our king, the one who IS.
Today we also celebrate thanksgiving.  And in many ways I feel it is appropriate that Christ the King Sunday happens at the same time as Thanksgiving.  Because we are called to be thankful for all that life has given us: all of it.  And there are a lot of hard things that we face, including the fact that God as King, Jesus as King, is not someone who will swoop in with power and authority and clean up our mess.  Jesus is a different kind of king, and one who, I think in times of stress and difficulty, we wish were someone who would fix everything and make it better.  That is what we want.  And the call to be thankful, instead, for what we have, for a God whose love goes beyond our imaginings but whose power is given up for our free will – that’s a God that it can be hard to be thankful for in times of trial.  And still, on this Christ the King Sunday we are called to be thankful.  The good news, as always, is that the free will that is given to all people in exchange for that power is ours as well.  We get to choose how or even if we will respond to God’s call.  We get to choose a genuine relationship with God: not one that’s forced on us, but one we are invited into.  We get to choose to be in relationship with a God who is compassionate not only towards people we like, not only towards those we don’t like, but even for us when we mess up too.  The God who stands before us as truth is a God who IS.  And that is something to be thankful for!
In so many ways we have an odd religion.  We don’t worship a God of power and might and riches.  We worship a God of love, relationships, and a king who chooses weakness that we might have freedom.  It is odd.  But it is also wondrous and amazing.  And something worth being thankful for.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The mixed feelings that surround the Holiday season

           I usually don't talk about this.  I don't usually mention that every year when we set up Christmas decorations, a level of unbidden depression sneaks into my heart.  I don't mention that there are still Christmas songs I cannot listen to, ones that I hope this year won't carry the memories, won't connect to a sense of terror, of tragedy, of unexpected disaster, but which still do.  I don't usually say out loud that the holidays are really filled with a combination of joy and grief, of contentment and great fear, of hope and anxiety.
           But this year a number of situations converged that made me realize that owning this reality might be helpful to other people too.  The first situation was an increase in the number of parishioners, just in the last week, who are in the hospital, who are facing serious illness and, in a couple cases, maybe even death.  This tends to happen around the holidays, by the way, and this year, the difference of a week made that very clear.  I also saw on Facebook a very well written article by someone talking about the visitor of grief that comes every holiday as she reflects on the death of a parent.  And her words, "I hope this year that my uninvited visitor (grief) will not come," rang so true for me that it has given me the courage to name my own reality out loud.
          This December sixth will mark eight years since our house was raided, our lives flipped on their heads, a well-kept secret brought into our awareness in an unbearable way, and a new reality created for my whole family.  And while on a day to day basis we live our lives well, we go about each day and each week and each month with joy and challenges and opportunities and possibilities, with healing and hope; there are certain things that happen around the holidays that always bring up for me those unbidden, unwanted and difficult feelings of fear and grief (in particular), of memories unsought and undesired.
           I don't talk about this because after eight years, shouldn't this be a thing of the past?  And yet, I would never tell another person that this should be true for them.  There are things we don't "get over," things that simply become part of the DNA of who we are, what our lives have become, and what we believe and feel. There are feelings that are permanently connected to times and seasons and situations.  And while they change, and they do, they never leave us, they never fail to make an appearance, they never let us forget that they are now part of our beings.
         I know I'm not alone in this.  Holidays especially bring up grief, pain, loss, memories for people.  This is a large part of why the suicide rate is so high around holidays.  Holidays are hard as well as beautiful, challenging as well as joyful,  and full of reminders of loss, as well as opportunities to celebrate what we have now.
         But I believe that all feelings, all memories, all recollections are also gifts.  In my case, these uncomfortable holiday feelings allow me to remember not only what was lost, what was incredibly tragic, what was an absolute nightmare; but also to remember the strength - both inner and what was given to us by others - that saw us through such a difficult time.  It is a chance to reflect again on the love of people who were beyond kind, the strong presence of God that carried us in so many, many concrete ways through a crisis I could not have faced otherwise, and the surprising inner courage and stubborn determination that helped me to care for my children especially, and to continue to be pastor to a congregation during an unbelievably difficult time.  These memories and feelings also help me to focus now with much greater gratitude than I might otherwise choose on the amazing gifts of the life that is mine today, on where I have come to from where we are.  Third, they invite me to create something each holiday that is indeed different and new and all about the present, rather than the past.  And finally, they force me to slow down for a moment, to spend some time in continuing to heal, to breathe, to BE while all the rush of the season zooms on around me.  These are gifts worth accepting, even from the unwanted visitors of uneasy memories and painful feelings of fear, anxiety and grief.
      This year, therefore, I'm choosing to welcome the past memories and challenging feelings rather than trying to shove them out the door.  I am choosing to be grateful for their presence and to take the time to hear what they have to say to me, to open the gifts they have brought, even if I do not want them at first, and to appreciate what they offer.
       For those for whom the holidays are hard, I invite you to take this journey with me.  Don't run from the pain, but invite it to teach you and to care for you at a deeper level.  Together, we can accept this invitation into growth.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The thing I'm NOT looking forward to.

         Weddings are exciting events.  They are times of transition, times of hope, times of promise.  As I'm gearing up for my New Year's wedding, I have all of the normal feelings of anticipation and excitement.  But I've also done this before, and because of it, I am aware of one big thing that I am dreading.  That one thing is the loss of my personal identity.
         Don't get me wrong: I'm not changing my name.  I didn't the first time, and I won't this time.  I know too much about how that practice began, what it meant (and what it sometimes still means) to make that choice. I'm all too aware that marriage used to be an exchange of property, said property being the bride who was literally purchased or sold (hence dowries, bride prices, etc.).  The bride's name change would symbolize the change in her ownership.  Often she would not only lose her last name, but her first name too, "Introducing, Mr. and Mrs. George Smith!"  The wife would become a person without her own identity: simply the Mrs. to a man with a full identity left intact.
        This passing on of property is the same reason at weddings we still, more times than not, have the father walk the bride down the aisle and we still ask the question, "Who gives this woman to this man?"  Yes, it is still a real and active part of our weddings that the ownership of the bride is passed on from one man to another.  In case you were wondering, that, too, will not be part of our ceremony.  Many people tell me that the question and the tradition no longer mean that.  But what else can that question possibly mean?  I am not the possession of my father, something he could therefore "give" to another man. At fifty years of age, having supported myself and having raised my kids on my own for many years now, the very idea of being my father's possession is preposterous.  But even when I was young, I would have balked at the idea.  I hope to God we have moved past the idea that children are simply possessions of their parents, objects that parents can "give" to anyone.
         People will also tell me that changing one's name to that of one's husband is no longer a symbol of female ownership or possession.  I believe that for many it is not and I do not question their decision to change their names.  But I also know that my decision NOT to change my name will be met with by anger on the part of some people.  The first time round, I cannot tell you how many people turned to my husband and said, "You LET her keep her own name?"  And that in itself is pretty telling, don't you think?  Who was he to "let" or "refuse to let" me do something that was about me and my identity?  My answer, of course, was always the same, "And I let him keep his, too.  Lucky man!"
         But despite the decisions David and I have made for an equal partnership, decisions that state that we will not continue to honor symbols and rites that at any time were signs of spousal possession, I know that people will question and be bothered by both the decision not to be given away and the decision to keep my name, ALL of my name.  And so, despite the fact that we have made these choices together (as I told David, I was more than willing to adopt his last name as part of my own if he would take mine as part of his: he declined saying his name was part of his heritage, part of his past, part of his history, part of his identity... hm.  Imagine that?), there will be people who will not accept it.  I am dreading the first Christmas card that we receive addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. David Louttit."   I am dreading the first phone call that asks me if I am Mrs. Louttit.  I am dreading the conversations I will have to have with people at work and in other places where I will have to explain over and over that at 50 years of age, my heritage and my history, my past and my identity also matter to me and that I would be giving up a great deal to part with them.  I am a published author with this name; I am active, socially, politically and spiritually in the larger community using this name; I have served as a pastor with this name for twenty two years. I am proud to be part of my family of origin and I value the name connection to my parents and grandparents. These, too, are a big part of my identity and parts I don't feel I need to sacrifice in the process of joining with another person in marriage.  I am dreading the constant need to claim my identity as my own, the constant need to defend a choice that is really David's and mine to make.
         Of course, I could potentially thwart all of that by stating that I want to continue the connection to my kids that our shared last name maintains (they have a hyphenated last name, half of which is mine), and no doubt I will fall back on this also-important-answer at some point in time.  But it is just a part of the truth of the decision.
         I'm certain that in every union of people there are things that one may dread or fear.  This is mine.  And I guess I am hoping that by putting it out there in this post, perhaps I will limit, just a bit, the hassle that will come my way as a result.   As I said, I do not judge others' decisions to come together in their last names.  I understand that sharing the same last name can be an important symbol of unity for many people and since traditionally the name taken has been that of the man, that it just becomes easier for many to practice that tradition.  I also understand that for many women, "wife" is the primary identity that they happily claim.  But my hope is that others will also understand and respect the decisions we are making that are best for our marriage as well as for the rest of my family. The world is full of diversity and difference.  This is a difference we are choosing.  And I hope it can be met with respect or at least tolerance.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thinking about the poison of Gossip

         We all know how poisonous gossip can be.  We all know that it can tear apart communities, it can destroy individuals, it can irreparably damage relationships.  We know this.  Most of us have seen this happen to someone else if we haven't experienced it directly. Recently I have seen it doing damage again, spreading and dividing a community again, with stories and tales that contain only a seed of truth and with growing venom that has hurt relationships and individuals.
          And yet, as damaging as we know it to be, there seems to be something deep in the human psyche that cannot resist passing on a juicy bit of "news" that we've heard, and something in our beings that has a hard time not embellishing and changing what we've heard... just a little... as we pass it along.  What is that?  Why is that?
          Perhaps we are needing to process through the things that we've heard, maybe we need to say it out loud in order for it to be real for us.  Maybe we are impacted by what we have heard and share it as a way to deal with our feelings.  Why then do we pass on the information changed?
        Perhaps we feel it won't be taken with enough seriousness if we don't make it bigger than we heard it was.  Maybe we believe people will not give it the full attention it needs if we don't change it a tiny bit in the sharing.
        There are cases when I think people use and manipulate gossip in order to get what they want.  And I believe there are times when people use gossip as a way to hurt or damage others.  But most of the time, I think people are not being mean or unkind or manipulative.
       Still I think the practice of gossip gets a great deal of cultural support.  People like being told news, they like being on the "in" and hearing the stories that others have to share.  That's a good thing when people are sharing their own stories.  But it is a very harmful thing when it comes to other people talking about and sharing stories that are not theirs to share.
        Most of the time I think people are not intending to hurt others.  But gossip is hurtful.  And I think the only thing that will affectively put a stop to the evil of gossip is the realization that we are just as guilty as the gossiper when we choose to engage the stories, when we support the practice of gossip by eagerly listening (not just passing along, but even listening) to the tales others tell us about other people.  I know it's not easy to do, but a simple, "I think I'd feel more comfortable hearing this story from the subject themself."  "I'm not sure 'Jane' would want me to be hearing this from anyone but Jane herself."  "I'm uncomfortable hearing this without Ed being with us."  "This sounds like it's Frank's story to tell."
         I realize direct confrontation around gossip is uncomfortable.  Walking away, or out of a circle of gossip, may be an easier way to handle it: sending a less direct but none the less clear communication that you are uneasy with the gossip.  This too can be hard, because it does communicate an unwillingness to engage a behavior our friends may be participating in.  I also realize that any time we choose not to engage in the circle of gossip, we risk becoming the target of the gossip itself.
         I understand all of that.
         But I also know that any time we choose to do what is best for a person who is being harmed, that any time we choose to opt out of or even confront something that is harmful to another person, we are choosing to make our community a tiny bit better for someone else.  And that is a deeply worth-while goal.
        I can't stop reflecting on the damage that I recently witnessed done to someone who did not deserve such hurt, condemnation, exclusion or broken relationships.  And I keep thinking that if even one person, early on in the situation, had stood up and said, "no" to the gossip circle, that things would have ended very differently.  That is tragic to me.  But it's also a call for a stronger determination to choose differently when the choices present themselves to either engage with gossip or to refuse to do so.  May we all have the strength to say "no."

A Faith that Can Move Mountains

Habakkuk 2:2-5

Matthew 17:14-21

            A tourist came too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon, lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and scratching to save himself.  After he went out of sight and just before he fell into space, he ran into a scrubby bush which he desperately grabbed with both hands.  Filled with terror, he called out to heaven, “Is there anyone up there?”  A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky, “Yes.”  The tourist pleaded, “Help me!  Help me!”  The voice responded, “Are you a believer?”  “Yes, yes!”  “Do you have faith?”  “Yes, yes!  I have strong faith.”  The voice said, “In that case, simply let loose of the bush and trust that everything will turn out fine.”  There was a tense pause, then the tourist yelled, “Is there anyone else up there?”


            The New Testament, especially, is filled with references to faith.  I believe, and have preached to you before, that there is really very little difference between faith and works; if you have faith, you will do the works.  And the truth is that we fall short in both areas.  Fortunately, salvation, whatever that means to you, is more about grace than either faith or works.  None the less, faith remains something that we strive to increase constantly.  According to today’s Gospel lesson, even the tiniest amount of faith will move mountains.  Yet, we rarely see even that much faith.  The exceptions are notable because of their rarity.

            Rev. Charles Tindley was an African American minister born in 1851.  He is considered the primary ancestor to African American gospel music.  He was also a dynamic preacher and a man who put his faith into action.  He turned his church basement into a soup kitchen to feed people who were without jobs in the 1920’s.  He organized a savings unit to help church members make down payments on their first homes.  He trained and educated the young people in his church.  It was out of his experience, but more, out of his faith that he wrote his sermons and his music.  His was a faith that was big enough to move mountains.  As Rev. Henry Nichols tells it:

Tindley said one morning he and his family sat down…getting ready for breakfast, and his wife said, “There is no food here.”  He said, “That’s all right.  Fix the table.  Put the dishes on – we’ll have breakfast.”  And she looked at him and said, “But Dr. Tindley, didn’t you hear me?  There’s no food here.”  He said, “That’s all right.  Fix the table.  Let’s sit down and have a prayer.”  And so she did.  The children sat down, and I’m sure the children thought he was gone…and he said, “Let’s bow our heads.”  No food: empty plates.  And then he began to pray, “Dear Lord, we thank you for what we are about to receive.”  And just then, he said, somebody knocked on the door.  He stopped and went to the door, and one of the officers said, “Brother Pastor, didn’t know whether ya’ll had anything to eat this morning.  Brought you some food over.”[1]


            Dorothy Day, founder and organizer of the Catholic worker shared similar stories of times when their house community, a community built for the purpose of and dedicated to serving the poor and destitute in and around them, would be on its last penny.  Time and again they would spend that last penny on whoever came to them for help because Dorothy and the workers had faith that the needed money would always come.  And it did.  On one such occasion the electric bill had to be paid and there was no money at all in the house.  The bill was for $9.57, not much now, but a lot at the time.  The power company said that the electricity would be turned off if the bill was not paid by the end of the day.  So everyone in the house began to pray.  At 4:30 that afternoon, the mail arrived and within it was a check – for $9.57, enclosed with a note apologizing for the odd amount and stating that the donor had found that much on the sidewalk and had felt called to send it to the Catholic Worker community.


            A doctor who worked in a country in Africa wrote:

One night I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all we could do she died leaving us with a tiny premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter.  We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive, as we had no incubator.  (We had no electricity to run an incubator.)  Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts.  One student midwife went for the box we had for such babies and the cotton wool the baby would be wrapped in.  Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle.  She came back shortly in distress to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst.  Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates.  “And it is our last hot water bottle!” She exclaimed.  “All right,” I said, “put the baby as near the fire as you safely can, and sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts.  Your job is to keep the baby warm.”

The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with any of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me.  I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby.  I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the hot water bottle.  The baby could so easily die if it got chills.  I also told them of the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.  During the prayer time, one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt conciseness of our children.  “Please, God,” she said, “send us a water bottle.  It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon.”  While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of a corollary, “And while you are about it, would you please send a doll for the little girl so she’ll know you really love her?”

I just did not believe that God could do this.  The only way God could answer would be for a package to arrive from my home.  I had been in Africa for almost four years and I had never, ever received a package from home.  Even if a package did come, who would send a hot water bottle?  We lived on the equator!  Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door.  When I got there, the car was gone but in its place was a large package.  I felt tears pricking my eyes.  I could not open the package alone, so I sent for the orphanage children.  Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot.  We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it as some thirty or forty pairs of eyes focused on the box.  From the top I lifted out brightly colored knitted shirts.  Eyes sparkled as I gave them out.  Then there were cotton bandages for the leprosy patients, a box of mixed raisins that we could use to make buns on the weekend.  Then, as I put my hand in again, I felt the…could it really be?  Yes, a brand-new, rubber hot water bottle.  I had not asked God to send it; I had not really believed that God could.  Ruth was in the front row of the children.  She rushed forward crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, God must have sent the doll too!”

Rummaging around in the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small beautifully dressed doll.  Her eyes shone!  She had never doubted.  Looking at me she asked, “Can I go over with you, and give this doll to that little girl, so she’ll know that God really loves her?”  This had obviously been sent months before.  As Isaiah 65:24 says, “Before they call, I will answer.”

            There are less dramatic stories of people who don’t get exactly to the dime what we might think they are needing, but who none-the-less live day in and day out by their faith.  For these people, often people who have very little in the way of material possessions, faith the size of a mustard seed is more than enough.

            Truthfully, some people, preachers, pastors, and others have mis-used this passage in Matthew that declares the faith of a mustard seed could move mountains.  Especially faith healers who earn their money and power through miracle healings - for them, it is easy to blame those who do not experience these miraculous healings by saying they simply did not have enough faith.  But faith, like everything else that is good in this life, is a gift from God.  It is one we can cultivate, but more it is a gift we must pray for and be grateful for when it comes.  It is nothing less than abuse to blame someone’s suffering on their lack of faith.

            If faith, then, is a gift, what do these stories mean for the average person, for you and me who do not seem even to have the faith of a mustard seed?  When I was working on my doctorate I took a class called Spirituality and Justice.  In class we spent a lot of time talking about the culture of despair that exists here in the United States.  It is hard for us, though we are the wealthiest people in the world, to hold on to our faith and our hope, especially if we care about justice and care about the people in this world.  This is a dark time in which justice seems hard to come by.  Many, many people are hungry; many are dying in wars or in political situations or just out of blind hatred that they had no hand in creating; racial motivated killings, theologically motivated killings, many suffer abuse, torture and betrayal by those closest to them.  Children especially suffer in today’s world, in which child slave labor and child prostitution, human trafficking, shootings at our schools…among many other things – all of these are higher than ever before and the large majority of the hungry in the world are under 12 years of age.  How do we hang on to our faith and our hope in light of these realities?

            My first wish in telling you these stories of faith is that they might help you find hope.  We do have a God whose eye is on the sparrow and who does and will watch over us as well.  We do not have to be afraid because our needs will be attended to.  All of us worry.  We do not usually have the faith to believe that we will be taken care of, and there are reasons for that lack of faith.  There are people who don’t have enough, there are people who struggle to survive, times feel hard and dark.  Still, in our faith journeys, we are called not to always be “realists”, but instead to live, to risk, to love from a place of hope and faith.  My hope is that when you are struggling to be faithful and hopeful, when you find yourself in despair or depression that you will remember these true stories that I have shared with you today, or stories like them.  If you can’t remember them, I hope you will call me or one another.  Part of what can keep us in a place of despair and depression is the fear that we are alone or that something is wrong with us to feel this way.  You are not alone, and these feelings make sense.  So when you go through a hard time, call one another, share with one another.  We all need to work together to remember stories of faith and hope.  God has promised the resurrection after death.  It is a promise we can count on.

            Second, I hope that these stories of a faith that will move mountains will inspire all of us to “act as if” we too had that kind of faith.  Take the risk of caring for someone you think you can’t afford to help.  Take the risk of speaking out against an injustice trusting that your voice will make a difference and help change the world.  Take the risk of thanking God for providing for your needs, for the world’s needs, trusting that the provisions will come.  Even if you can’t believe it, even if you can’t find the faith, act as if you have it.  Act as if you live by faith and soon it will no longer be an act.

            Finally, I hope these stories will encourage you to pray for your faith to be increased constantly.  Faith is a gift wanting to be given.  Don’t be afraid to ask for it.  Others have asked and have been given faith in abundance.  The gift is there for you as well.

            As today’s passage in Habbakuk said, “There is still a vision for the end, and it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it: it will surely come, it will not delay.”  That vision for the end is of resurrection.  That vision is of new life.  And it does not tarry or delay.  It comes daily to those with eyes of faith.  So pray for that faith, support one another in finding that faith, act out of faith even when you can’t muster it.  God is here.  God is love.  God will bring more than enough to the world this day and always.

[1] Reagon, We’ll Understand it Better By and By (Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1992), 46