Topic: Mission. Learning how we as disciples who walk with God are led into action to participate in God’s transforming work in the world.
God loves us unconditionally. There is no condition in which God will not love us.
Nerd warning: I love logic and find this stuff interesting. You have been warned.
In logic (and grammar), a conditional sentence has two parts: If x, then y. A conditional sentence is always true. If x is true, then y will always be true. For example, if a shape has three sides, the nit is a triangle. Or if your nose runs and your feet smell, then you are built upside down.
When we say that God’s love is unconditional, we mean that there is no sentence that can be formed where if x, then God will love us. For example, if we are a good person, then God will love us or if we go to church, then God will love us. Those statements are false. We believe God always loves us, without condition.
But our love of God is conditional. In John 21: 15-19, Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” When Peter replies that he loves Jesus, Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” This could be read as a conditional sentence. If you love me, then you will feed my sheep/lambs. If the first part is true, then the second part is always true. If we love Jesus/God, then we will feed his sheep.
And the Good Shepherd has lots of sheep. His sheep are all of the children of God: your neighbor, the children at Montclair, the homeless man sleeping on the street, everyone.
Serving others, healing divisions, and establishing the Kingdom of God is not optional for anyone who says that they love God. It is how we respond to God’s love. It is the condition of loving God.
I often quote Reggie McNeal, who likes to say, “the Church does not have a mission; God’s mission has a church.” In other words, God is at work in this world, and He has invited the Church (the global community of people who follow Jesus) to help. Our mission is to do God’s mission. Our mission is to feed Jesus’ sheep.
God loves us unconditionally. But our loving response has a condition. If we love God, then we will feed His sheep. That is our mission.
Learning the rhythm of following the Good Shepherd and being sent out as servant leaders to form disciples.
I have never enjoyed drum solos. That statement probably sounds strange from someone who has been playing drums almost 40 years, but I have never connected with them. I generally go to the concession stand or talk to my friends during a drum solo. They are usually ego-driven displays of speed and agility, often with gimmicks like playing upside down or in flames, rather than real musicianship. I would much rather hear a guitar, piano, horn, or a vocalist featured than a drummer. My dislike for solos is not that they lack creativity, talent, or imagination. I simply prefer hearing a great drummer playing “in the pocket.” Drummers talk about “playing in the pocket” to describe playing in the groove with a steady beat and a feel for the rhythm. If a drummer is in the pocket, the band coalesces around the beat while the other instruments and the singer are freed to shine.
A drummer’s job is to listen and to keep the band together. During a song, the drummer leads from behind, providing the band’s tempo and direction. Most people think the lead singer or the lead guitarist is the leader of the band. That assumption is generally true as far as personality is concerned, but when a band is playing, the drummer is the one guiding the group through transitions and holding it all together. Lead singers and guitar, piano, and horn players all affect the feel and sound, but none of them have the ability to create the groove like a drummer. A great guitar solo is memorable, but if the drummer does not keep time or plays with the wrong dynamic or feel, then the solo will be memorable for the wrong reasons. Great bands have great drummers. Bob Dylan could get away with not having vocal chops, mostly because of his lyrics, but if Levon Helms, the drummer for The Band, did not hold a beat, no one would have listened.
I am not one to generally enjoy being in the background. As a trial lawyer, I love being in the spotlight, but over the last five to ten years, I have begun to realize that leadership, especially of the staff at my firm, is more than being out front. Jesus often spoke about leading by service. He says that as the Great Shepherd, he knows his flock and his flock knows him. His flock listens to him, and he lays down his life for them. We base our faith on the amazing gift of Jesus laying down his life–the ultimate act of service. As I read the passage about the Great Shepherd, I am also struck by how he connects with us. In leading his sheep, Jesus knows his flock and allows them to know him. He says his flock listens to him, and I believe that he listens to us also. To successfully lead, he loves us. He takes the time to know his people, and he connects with us. We know he loves us enough to lay down his life for us, and then he does. Serving others is leadership and requires more listening than speaking.
Until recently, I had never really thought about why I dislike drum solos. Many drum solos are very technical and require a lot of skill. A lot of thought and planning goes into them. It takes a lot of work to put on that showcase of ego. However, as I play more and more, I realize that the real art of playing in a band, for a drummer, is in listening and taking the time to connect. For a drummer, there is no better feeling than playing in the pocket. There is leadership in not being at the front. At its core, the foundation of leading is serving and setting aside ego. Jesus is less concerned with the reward of tending the flock than He is with His relationship and love for his flock. Just as if members of a band listen to each other, they play as one, Jesus said that His sheep will listen to him and be one flock.. Maybe He meant they should find joy in the pocket. He never mentioned anything about solos.
Topic: Relationships. Learning top develop deeper and balanced relationships “up” with God, “in” with our community, and “out” with the world.
Our relationships can be transformed or renewed over time, even our relationship with God; this is a great blessing and of course a consequence of human development, though broken relationships can bring us pain. And how we handle and sustain our relationships, whether those that reach “up” to God, “in” to friends and family, or “out” to the wider community, may have long term unknown consequences. That is, how we relate to our world may affect how others relate to theirs—and to God. As the prayer for this week says “all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives.”
Our twelve-year-old granddaughter understood that we were reluctantly entering a new time in our lives when she drew a picture for us about two years ago. The picture has a rainbow background and just one object, a green leaf, falling through the air, with the word “Chapters” written at the bottom. We framed and hung it in the kitchen to remind ourselves that, even in our eighties, new chapters can be positive and healthy. Our reluctance to turn over this new leaf was largely about leaving relationships—great neighborhood, loving friends, warm church. Some of the best relationships of our lives were formed in the last twenty years. Good relationships, we’ve found, are not necessarily life-long relationships—quality beats quantity in this equation. Real time spent listening, laughing, crying, and praying together is what matters. Somehow that’s easier as we age. We, and most of our friends, were grandparents, and our relationships were easy, tolerant friendships built around good conversation, books, music, travel, volunteering, church—very different from earlier relationships centered around children, dogs, jobs and making a mark in the world. We didn’t want to leave. Could we move back to Pensacola after 58 years and make new (old?) friends? Would we find God in residence at Christ Church—we knew he lived at St. Mark’s!
Here’s the amazing truth: it’s OK. Yes, God lives in that beautiful old place on Wright Street just as he does in our modern church down in South Florida, and in all the places we’ve lived and worshipped in since we left Pensacola in 1960. It’s the open, welcoming, worshipping community that matters—that, and our part: listening to God’s call to plant ourselves in a new congregation. We appreciate the diversity of our new parish and are thrilled by its community outreach. We love the music at Christ Church, and the splendor of its corporate worship. And we have finally relaxed enough to be forming new relationships and strengthening a few very old ones. The newest relationship is with Jemiah, a first grader at Montclair School—there is such a spark of God’s light in that child—and the oldest relationships are with family members who are our dearest friends as well. A close family is one of God’s greatest gifts, and we are truly blessed in that department. We live at Azalea Trace, which turns out, despite our initial anxieties, to be a warm, peaceful place and treasure trove of delightful, caring new friends. What a bounty only a year after our move.
I cannot claim to be an expert on good relationships with God, because I am a frail leaf for whom prayer is often difficult. But I see God all over the place, perhaps most often in the people I love and in people who work for peace and justice in the world. Like many Christians I feel the Holy Spirit around me in places of natural beauty and in times of gladness or insight. I hope that loving God is the beginning of prayer and the basis of a sustaining relationship with him. I pray that a relationship with God will ameliorate my influence in his world. It is all a work in progress, not a fait accompli, even for folks my age. We are all struggling toward the light.
Topic: Rhythm – Matthew 11:28-29 – Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
People know me as a positive upbeat person, and to a great extent I am. Every now and then, as in every life, my joy in life shifts into a minor key, and the light seems to go dark.
There is no explanation. There are times I blame some mystery of personal chemistry, or a variation in the atmospheric pressures. The darkness can certainly be triggered by an anniversary, especially the anniversary of September 11. The deaths of all those innocents, on a truly beautiful September day, confounds my spirit. I’ve struggled to manage the despair, but I find myself restless, ill-at-ease and living through the horror of that day again, wondering how “believers,” people among whom I have lived, could seek to attain Paradise by hijacking airplanes and crashing the into places where thousands would die.
These are not thoughts I can handle on my own, but I discovered a place which soothes my soul. I find myself seeking out the quiet serenity of our own Chapel of the Beloved Son.
Stained Glass in the Chapel of the Beloved Son
As part of Welcome Saturdays, we often take visitors into the Chapel, and all, like me, are taken with its beauty and serenity. It’s become a special place to me, a place I can go when the darkness and restlessness strike and I need a place to confront God in his own house.
It isn’t pretty. The rhythms of my emotions are choppy. Sometimes I’m angry, and I ask God to give me some clue about why this (whatever it is) is happening. Mostly I sit, until little by little the chaotic discords of my dark emotions quiet. Sometimes I can cry. Sometimes maybe it’s enough just to breathe.
The last time I visited the Chapel in misery, I couldn’t even imagine how to pray. I arrived in emotional chaos and sat as the chapel darkened, becoming slowly aware of all the visitors we have taken into this special room as part of the Welcome Saturday ministry. I thought of our old friends and parishioners whose remains are contained in the columbarium, and it brought a smile to my face to think of them having a very Episcopalian kind of party. I find, in the chapel, as my emotions calm, I have the freedom to let my mind roam; it’s a relief to stop thinking about whatever it is that makes me dark and sad and to find myself soothed and quieted.
This November night, caught up in an event over which I had no control, out of the swirling chaos came a voice into my mind and heart, a voice that made me grin, because this is what God sounds like when he finds me in the Chapel of the Beloved Son.
“I’ve got this.”
Immediately, my balance and rhythm are restored. My peaceful rhythm is restored. I still have no control, and it is OK now, my Lord and Savior has everything well in hand and I am free to go about the work that he has given me to do. I can let go of the choppy, discordant rhythms and return to the coherent rhythms of trust and belief.
Topic: Being Attentive – Acts 17:15-34 – Learning to be attentive to God’s presence in every moment of our lives and the world around us.
We live in an immaterial world that scrolls past us– our thumbs habitually swiping and our eyes scanning for meaning amidst a blur of tweets, emojis, and constant contact with a community of “friends” online who might not even be all that friendly.
We are left to determine if what we read, see, and experience online is real. In fact, we are learning that a number of stories and posts need verification. We must remind ourselves that on personal social media platforms many posts are simply the highlight reel of people’s lives, projecting only the “good stuff.” We then end up spending more time reading between the lines than through them. It’s easy to let the immaterial consume our reality.
A constant barrage of information, both absurd and relevant, clamors for our attention and time.
How then do we cut out the informational noise in order to be attentive to God’s presence in every moment of our lives and the world around us?
I tune my ears to hear God as He speaks to me through His children. As a mother and teacher, I spend my days absorbed in the details of their care and development and counsel. Sometimes it feels like the fountain of youth; other days I fully acknowledge the toll it takes. But there’s no denying the proximity to God when I surround myself with his littlest creations and delight in them the way He does.
My 6-year-old son completed a school assignment for Christian Education titled “The ABCs of God.” He labeled a grid with words that fit his view of God, from “A to Z,” or in his case, from “Angels to Zoe.” His list included coordinating illustrations, and his renderings were simultaneously simplistic (“Angels, Big, Creator…”) and profound.
“F is for Faith” was illustrated with a large heart surrounding a smaller one, “because faith is the love of God that becomes love for other people.” He had perfectly illustrated faith in action.
“V is for Vast” appeared as few small white dots surrounded by darkness. Indeed God is vast, dear child, but where have you heard that utterly perfect word?
“I is for ‘I am’.” A stick figure was labeled with his own name, Bill. “God made me, and I am like him,” he told me. I pondered how being created in God’s image means we do God’s work in the world and the depth of his simple statement.
My favorite, and his too, was his depiction for “R is Real.” In it, a man is picturing something in his mind. Bill explained, “He’s sticking out his tongue and blowing a raspberry at the idea because he doesn’t believe it’s real. BUT LOOK! The real thing, the thing he’s thinking about, IS RIGHT BEHIND HIM– and he doesn’t even notice! Sometimes people don’t believe in God, but HE’S RIGHT HERE!” Bill was incredulous. So was I.
Do I scoff at what is real? Do I overlook the hand of God in my life? Am I so busy that I scroll past what God is showing me or dismiss the thought he posted in my mind?
It’s so tempting to blow a raspberry at it all when we are scheduling every moment of our families’ lives between 2:45 and 8:30 pm, or working in a frenzy Monday through Friday, just to spend Saturday cleaning up our messes and Sunday getting ready for the next one. It’s tempting to dismiss God in a world of friending and following everyone else.
God calls us to an “A to Z” childlike faith. In Lent we are also called to tune out and “pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.” Make that your status update and notice how God works in your life these 40 days. Or just go talk to a 6-year-old. They definitely keep it real.
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”(Book of Common Prayer, 265)
Growing up, when I would attend Ash Wednesday service, I was always captivated when the priest would stand in front of us and bid us “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.” My mind would pause to contemplate: an invitation to a holy Lent? What is a “holy Lent”? What should I give up or take on these 40 days? Is Lent all about what act of sacrifice I am doing or is there something more? What will the next 40 days bring?
Listening deeper, the priest would continue “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance.” And, new every time, it would hit me: Lent is a time to slow down and focus. These words welcomed and exhorted us into a time of looking deeply. A time of looking at our relationship with God and cultivating relationships with one another. A time of retracing the steps and walking in the footsteps of Jesus of when he was in the wilderness for 40 days. And even more closely, in following Him in the journey to the Cross.
How deeply countercultural to stop, pause, reflect, and open our eyes to the world around us. Too often in a world with fast paced activities and thinking, with information flashing across screens and easily accessible at our fingertips; stopping, pausing, reflecting, looking are revolutionary. The practices I adopt or give up take on new meaning in helping me walk nearer with Him. To see the places in my life where I need to hear Jesus anew, where I need to turn around and draw closer to Him. Where I see and feel God’s love and presence. And then, in walking closer with God, I am changed.
I am changed. I am changed by love and I grow. I grow in being attentive to God working in the world around me and through me. I grow in walking in step with God in developing healthier habits. I grow in my relationship with God and with others around me. I grow as a disciple, learning at the feet of Jesus. I grow in then being sent out to share His love with others.
This Ash Wednesday, when we all hear again the words, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent,” my prayer for all of us is that we may pause. May this be a time of deepening relationship as we journey with Christ. May we see how His love for us rescues and cares for us. May we learn to walk with Him – following His footsteps and voice. May we “be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Amen.
“For every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven;
A time to be born, a time to die,
a time to plan, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
A time to kill, and a time to heal,
a time to break down , a time to build up;
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
In nature’s sense of seasons, we are approaching fall. I am inspired by nature and find her to be a great teacher. I enjoy that nature is slow and consistent and reliable. Summer will turn into fall, which will then become winter and then spring, over and over again. When the seasons shift, even in the subtle beginning, there exists a scent of promised change.
As described in the verses from Ecclesiastes, there are also seasons in life, periods of time that are bookmarked by birth and death, planning and reaping, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing.
As the lazy days of summer drift into the slightly cooler days of fall, I recall several events from this period of time over the span of many years. In 1994, I received the news that my mother had passed away unexpectedly. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan arrived and took with him many of my beloved possessions and much of the structure of my home. In 2006, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. While these events were challenging at the time, I know today they led to personal growth, deepened my faith, prepared me for what was to come and provided unexpected gifts and blessings that helped to shape and define my life.
Following the loss of my mother, I was asked to help with the youth of the church. Despite the fact that I was lost, empty, and depressed, I said yes. I have no idea why but believe God was present and at work. Through this ministry, I developed a deeper relationship with God and made a connection with the youth and other adults, establishing a community I had not known before. It also took the focus away from my loss, and planted my feet firmly in the church and in God’s word. Through giving, I received. All of these factors would establish a base that provided strength and support and often laughter. This became the road map and resting place while rebuilding my home after Hurricane Ivan and my health after Breast Cancer. All of our experiences can provide growing ground in the same way a seed buried in the dirt grows to a deeply rooted tree or a stone becomes polished by the force of a waterfall.
These messages are brought to life in the movie “The Shack”. The messages are complicated but profound and include challenging topics of pain and loss and forgiveness. The main character, Mack, has experienced a childhood of darkness but has found a place of joy and light in adulthood. An event occurs that leads the main character into a period he refers to as “the great sadness”. When we learn the reason why, no one doubts the reason for his sadness or his anger. Mack receives a mysterious message that takes him on a journey where he meets God. Mack doubts, questions and rages at God but is ultimately led to a new understanding. The event and the sadness remain a part of the tapestry of his life, but Mack is changed. There is a new birth, a new love and a new season.
Regardless of whether you are experiencing a season of sadness or of joy, things will change and you will move into a new season, at times gradually and other times in a sudden and startling way. God is with us in the midst of whichever season we are in and will sustain us in the tough times and delight in our joys in the good times. The people on this earth and in the community of our church can be the hands and feet and heart of God in every season. That includes me, and that includes you.
Today I did the most shocking, discordant, and rebellious act of Episcopal church membership.
I changed pews.
Now, mind you, I merely migrated north 4 rows– but this changed my experience of the service profoundly.
First, I was able to see my children, who had argued all the way to church, but stood cherubic in those blue Canterbury choir robes that match the eyes their daddy gave them. And the singing. Pure and sweet. I know you all think they act like that all the time. They don’t. For just those few minutes, I got to enjoy them the way you do. And it was wonderful. Pure delight.
But even better I had the pleasure to watch each of you on your path to the rail.
Much has been written on the subject of the holy decent to our knees with our hands out, as we squeeze shoulder to shoulder with family and stranger alike. Of note is this wonderful homily by Dr. Brene Brown delivered at the National Cathedral.
I watched the steps you took on your journey to the holy start of your week.
I saw you, stoic and staid, dressed in your pressed slacks and perfect tie.
I saw you, hunched and nearly pulling yourself up the hand rial of the three steps to the choir level, a walk that takes so much out of you, but puts so much in.
I saw you drop and retrieve the handkerchief you clung to like a life raft.
I saw you look at the ceiling, a quick meditation, as your feet continued forward on autopilot.
I saw you reach out to an acquaintance in the parallel line with a gentle shoulder rub.
I saw you look down to the ring on your hand as you felt the cool metal of the solid brass handrail under your palm.
I saw you hug the friend in the front row.
I saw you make space for the visitor to merge into line.
I saw you put your hand on the small of your wife’s back.
You, my church family, were beautiful.
As I observed, a young boy about five years old descended the stairs near the pulpit in tears.
His mother mouthed something, and I realized he had experienced what my children once called a “passover,” when through some small misunderstanding, a child is blessed or passed over for the wafer or wine.
As a chalice bearer, I know the confusion that can occur at the rail as children or newcomers or visitors look for our guidance and the challenge we experience of reading the minds of each recipient (Will she assist with the cup? Will he intinct?).
It’s an innocent misunderstanding, but his earnest reaction struck me.
His desire for communion, his passion, his need, his disappointment were everything we each take with us to the rail.
This precious boy will be fine. My own children have recovered from “passovers.” Children are quite resilient as you know–and likely a well-timed Parish Hall cookie helped.
Please don’t think my voyueristic observations untoward. I’m usually so distracted by my pew mates that I’m lucky to notice when it’s our turn to stand and approach. But today I felt more a part of the collective “us” than I have in a long time.
The Eucharistic experience is simultaneously singular and collective. May we see one another as we approach the rail together, and may we do so with the expectancy that Christ will provide all that we need.
Yesterday I was at Target with my kids and as we shopped, they played I spy. One of the biggest things they noticed was a banner that was hanging across the entrance that said, “Easter: The Hunt Is On.”
At first, they noticed the bunny around the letters, but Grayson immediately exclaimed, “But it’s not Easter yet!” We talked about having just been at church and being part of the Palm Sunday procession. The entire Sunday afternoon Ainsley had spent exclaiming, “Hosanna in the Highest.” After we left Target, we talked about what else happens before Easter and it was amazing to hear the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross from the lips of my children. They are so young and innocent, they love hunting eggs and yet they want to hear the real story unfold first.
We are immersed in a culture that is always ahead of the faith story with marketing displays showing up earlier and earlier, but what my kids reminded me of was to slow down. There is a story that we have yet to experience this year, and although we may have heard it before; we need to walk through Holy Week this year before we can fully experience the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.” Book of Common Prayer, pg 134
We were on a family rotation of every three hours at her bedside. We were the workers, the watchers, the weepers. We were weary.
And she was dying.
Someone remained near her day and night–no more nurses, just her steadfast husband, devoted children, and me, a different kind of daughter. Sometimes music filled the background; during the day, light streamed through the shutters changing angles over the sun’s course across the sky. The sound of the oxygen machine, forcing its life into her, rhythmically clicked and hissed. We were servants of the clock, waiting for each next dose, waiting for relief. Our ears perked at any change in her– a turn, a shift, or a murmur.
During one such shift, I pondered what it meant to suffer. Reminding myself that our care for her was calculated to keep her comfortable, I realized that I selfishly dwelt with my own suffering: missing my children who had already said their heartbroken goodbyes, keeping up with work from home, juggling the generous help of friends, passing Joe in the night for our shifts. I looked at her, peaceful, quiet.
She waited for Paradise. It was we who suffered.
Sitting there, I closed my eyes. In my mind, I drew the room I was in: the furniture and decorations of their lovely family home; the equipment, newly installed for this goodbye mission; and her, there, but not there.
And then my mind drew Jesus in the chair next to the bed. He sat, holding her hand. Looking at me. Waiting with us. Waiting for her. No smile. No words. In fact, He looked as sad and tired as I felt.
But He was there.
And when I opened my eyes, I could see Him there still. I blinked, and I hesitated, but the image of my Jesus that I conjured in my imagination endured beyond my mind into my reality. He looked at me. And He waited.
My Jesus, who knew the death of a friend, who watched back from the cross as his loved ones watched him endure human death, who himself died, sat. Here.
While I blamed sheer exhaustion for the apparition, I paused to recognize Godly presence– the one that’s always there, but the presence we only acknowledge in our own deepest need.
My vision only lasted until I left the room, but I recalled it each time I returned. I shared it with Joe because to share it felt that much more real, and I knew he needed the image too.
God’s presence endured beyond those moments. That experience sustained me over two more exhausting days of waiting and in the days that followed our loss; I knew Jesus had waited for her, just as He had waited with me.
In the three years since, Lent’s focus on sacrifice and loss, all culminating in the imminent death of our Lord Jesus, puts me through the rigors of grief and suffering. The foretelling readings of Lent as we work to Passion Sunday and Good Friday send my mind swirling around memories of waiting, and enduring, and knowing what’s coming, but dreading it. I remind myself that Lent offers something that, as Christians, earthly suffering can promise too: Easter, resurrection, and new life.
We know that we can endure Lent. Regardless of what we give up, regardless of where our pondering minds wander, Jesus waits with us through the process.
Hold an image in your mind of Jesus waiting with you through these days of Lenten reflection. Forty days of prayer, sacrifice, and awareness can be exhausting, but Jesus waits for us to join Him on the other side of Lent.
He waits with the promise of the Easter message, that is, hope—the promise of forever.
The Doctrine of Christian Hope from the Catechism asks “What is the Christian hope?” The answer: “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.”
And so we live. And we wait. And I believe, here and now, that Jesus waits with us.