When Adult Children Become Caregivers

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We are underway with a series Deep Roots Parenting for the Common Good in which we have been looking at our priorities and values as parents. We are all caregivers -- care givers to young and old; to those who share our DNA and to those who we are connected to us by a double helix of love of God and neighbor.

Today, I want to speak specifically to those who find yourself now parenting the parents who raised them and are now facing the tables turned as they become the caregivers for aging parents; those of you who find yourself now parenting the parents who raised you.

Caregivers and Those in the Winter Season Life

This season can be challenging for you as caregiver.

Some of you are on the roller coaster of family care waiting for when the next fall or emergency throws everything into a tailspin. Some of you are in the marathon of family care. You have been caring for a parent, witnessing the slow and persistent decline. Weekly, you make the trip to the home to sort the laundry and play a modified game of dominoes. If it’s good day, your parent will remember your name and that you are his daughter. Some of you were there until the end, rarely leaving the side, holding vigil and doing everything from managing your parent’s pain to completing a will to reminiscing about life. You were swimming in the deep end of the family care pool.

Some of you who are Caregivers, might think, parenting my parents while parenting my young children and holding down a job is too much. I am trying to be there for my parents and their growing needs and I am trying to be there for my children and I am left at the end of the day just feeling guilty and exhausted.

It can also be challenging for you who are in the winter season of life. For you, you struggle with your loss of independence and increasing vulnerability. You are frustrated that you cannot dowhat you could do before. You’ve resigned yourself to the unwelcome companionship of aches and pains, and you scan the obituaries to see which friend’s funeral you will be next attending. You’ve relinquished so many things, yet you have never relinquished the sense of trying to live out your baptism even in this winter season and the sense of being summoned to love God and neighbor. We are moved by your witness and affirmation that in growing old no one needs to be pushed to the margins of irrelevance.

I understand because I’ve been there

Last weekend I was in Louisville visiting my 93 year old mother. My visits to my mom can be hard for me. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile what your parent once was with what they have become in their frailty. While my mom’s short term memory loss makes long conversations a thing of the past, if I am honest, it is hard because I deal internally what is our tendency to do collectively: to stay present in a situation, sitting there in the quiet of the retirement home in which we are reminded that we are finite, bodily creatures who cannot escape diminishment, loss and eventual death.

In the hours before Jesus’ own death, twice Jesus came to the sleeping disciples whom he had asked to watch with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ awakened them and said with sad surprise, “What, could you not watch with me one hour?” When he came the third time and found them sleeping, he looked sadly down upon them and said, “Sleep on now, and take your rest.” I returned this week from Louisville thankful for my sister for showing up and being there in a way that I cannot. She manages my mom’s everything. (It helps that she is CEO of the network of retirement homes where my mom lives.) And I am thankful to my brother who is there to provide daily support stopping by to see that my mother is okay and to turn down the bed. I don’t know if I could sustain what they do daily.

Conclusion

To all who are caregivers, to those who are in the winter season of life, we acknowledge your sense of loss but also affirm the tenacity of your faith.

To all who are caregivers, your love for your family is great, but the burden of care is great, too, whatever the unique situation you face. I acknowledge you. We acknowledge that it can exhaust your physical, mental, financial and spiritual resources. We acknowledge that each of your journey is different and your complex needs are different. We seek to be your support.

We are all family caregivers in some way and we are on many different journeys.

Moon Shot

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Hard to believe 50 years has passed and if you are like me you may have wondered all these years later: “How did they pull this moon shot off? With less computer power than is in the average pocket here today, they flew to the moon, landing on its service, re-docking the lunar module while the two craft orbited the moon.”

To state the obvious, the moon is really far away. But, as interesting as the moon was, it was the images looking back at the earth, this tiny marble of color in a sea of blackness, that fittingly take your breath away.

During the recent coverage of the Apollo 11 anniversary they reached back to that Apollo 8 mission. They recalled how the astronauts were told that they would have the largest television viewing audience in history—no pressure—and they should do something appropriate. When the time came, they read their Christmas Eve message:

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.

With Apollo 11, the person charged with communicating between ground control and Apollo 11 was Michael Collins. Poetic as he was, he recalled in a recent interview flubbing the opportunity to say something profound (like Apollo 8 when they referenced the book of Genesis) the moment Apollo 11 was to fire its boosters to leave the earth’s orbit en route to circle the moon.

The technical term for the maneuver was “lunar thrust injection,” “LTI” for short. When the command was given, all he said was, “Apollo 11, you’re go for LTI.” And the response was something like, “Roger, LTI.” No poetry, no profundity, Collins later regretted.

“The Earth is the Lord’s"

As with Apollo 8, Collins could have drawn upon the rich imagery of the Scriptures when it comes to understanding our relationship to our earth home, for example, Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

The Bible makes an important assertion. The place doesn’t belong to us. The earth is the creator’s — God’s.

We’re allowed to live in it and to enjoy it and to use its amazing productivity. But we don’t own it and so are not free to do with it whatever we want. The problem is that we act like it’s ours alone and in the process we seem to be creating some fairly significant problems for those who will come after us.

We heard the astronauts recalling the first chapters of Genesis, the story of creation. And while we may fuss with the issues of whether or not it is accurate historically and scientifically, where the garden was, we miss what the story is about — which is that God is the creator, the creation is good, God blesses the creation and God puts human beings in it to enjoy it and take care of it.

In the Bible, we get the responsibility for tending to the garden. God puts people in the garden and tells them to “till it and keep it.” God puts people in the creation process — to exercise responsibility over all the rest of it. “Dominion” is the word the Bible uses. It means to take care, loving, tender, and responsible care of the precious gift of the Earth.

That is at the very heart of our faith, the goodness and fullness of God’s creation and our God given responsibility to take good care of it.

And then, in the fullness of time, God came into creation, into the world, in the birth of a child in Bethlehem. And among the many meanings the incarnation — the gift of Jesus Christ — has for us is this: God loves and blesses the world and human life by visiting it and becoming part of it, by living and dying in it and by rising again to redeem it — the whole creation, about which St. Paul wrote provocatively, is groaning in anticipation, waiting for, longing for its redemption, its wholeness, its salvation.

It is time now for people of faith to recover our oldest theological and biblical tradition. The invitation is to reclaim both the gift, the amazing miracle of the earth - and - to reclaim the responsibility God has given us.

Conclusion

Back to that interview with Michael Collins, on the 50th anniversary, Collins was interviewed and asked if he was at the controls and could do it all over again, what call would you give - something poetic like those of Apollo 8 or like Armstrong with his famous words of the giant leap? Collins thought, “Well, I would abide by NASA rules, which you can’t say more than I think eight words in a row, and, preferably they will all be monosyllabic. So, Collins paused, “under those conditions, I would say, ‘Apollo 11, the moon is yours. Go.’ ”

We are invited to reclaim our oldest theology of creation, the praise and gratitude it evokes — and the responsibility. The earth is the Lord’s the Psalmist says, but God entrusts it to us to care for it and says: “Go.”

Resources:

1. For the history on the Moon Shot, some of the events have embedded link for further research.
2. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/space/mission-moon/article/JFK-s-1962-moon-speech-though-deliberate-13960428.php
3. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/apollo-11-astronauts-return-to-launch-pad-50-years-later
4. Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, http://billmckibben.com/end-of-nature.html
5. Elaine Pagels’ Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, (Vintage Books, 1989).

Blessed Tomorrow: Caring for Creation Today

It is mid-August, which means some of you have just sent off your kids to college for the first time. Others are long past that point. For others it still lies ahead. For those of you who were just part of the August ritual of sending off your kid to college -- we can’t blame you for trying to cover everything. That parent geyser love is strong; you are deluged with feeling. From all the lessons from looking both ways before crossing the street to the parting hug of your child at the step of the college dorm there are things we ALL need our child to know:

  1. I love you.

  2. You are a child of God and nothing will ever change that. Don’t have to earn it, but you should live like a child of God.

  3. You are responsible for yourself. You’ll need to take responsibility even when it is hard. You are making more and more decisions, and you need to know every decision has consequences. Some are good, some not so good. Some you can anticipate; but many will catch you by surprise. But know that the choices you make affect your life, those you love, and sometimes even total strangers. 

This brings me to our topic today - the issue of our relationship to our environment - the idea of environmental stewardship, which is also just quite simply love of neighbor. You can think of it as love of God and of nature.

For some time, I have felt that this concern is important to address. Faith communities are increasingly called upon to demonstrate leadership when speaking about the moral imperative of action, reducing their own climate impact, providing sanctuary in times of need, advocating for strong policies, and guiding its congregation and the larger community toward the development of solutions.

The biblical writers were convinced that human beings and all other creatures are united in a network of shared life. The ultimate redemption of creation does not end with human beings, but includes everything from the anemone sea urchin to the zebra. We are all tied together as creatures beloved by the creator. What affects some affects all, and the choices of some have consequences for all.

And if we are all united in one network of shared life, then that means we are all connected. And if this is true, then matters of the earth are not just a scientific conversation; it is a faith conversation. Therefore, if we are thoughtful in our faith, our faith does not ignore science. Nor does science ignore the role of the moral and virtue landscape that is central to a faith community’s wheelhouse.

Therefore, let’s look at that science in regards to the earth, our planet. The science is overwhelming. Carbon dioxide is on the rise, trapping heat. The icecaps are melting. The planet is warming. Asthma is on the rise. Couple that science with what we see happening more often each year: oil spills from pipelines, groundwater pollution and earthquakes from fracking, the destruction of natural habitats for both salt and freshwater fish, and the fact that the number of events requiring a disaster declaration has more than quadrupled to about 400 a year worldwide (according to the United Nations), and the trend is clear. The earth is running a fever and is getting sicker.

Which leads back to you the point I made earlier, every decision has consequences, and when you know what those consequences are, you need to be responsible.

So the question for us is this: What is our responsibility when we look at environmental stewardship? Can this be the thing that our children’s children will look to us not in dismayed disappointment, but with gratitude and inspiration? It matters because the whole creation is groaning, because every decision has a consequence. We have learned the consequences of our own decisions; now is the time for us to find our way to live better.


Want to find a better way to live better?

Join one of the challenges below. Want to hear more from Pastor John on this topic? Listen to his entire sermon here under August 18: https://www.ebpctn.org/sermons-music-bulletins

1 - Take our plastic reduction challenge and earn fun prizes!

Track your effort to reduce plastic consumption in the form of water bottles, grocery bags, and straws. Individuals and families with the greatest reduction efforts will receive prizes!

2 - Pledge your support by signing the PCUSA Climate Care Challenge: http://bit.ly/2P7B38Q
Join others throughout our denomination by pledging your efforts to care for God’s creation.


 

More than an Idle Tale

No one expected it to happen. Not even he did. Years earlier, he had said to his peers “I’m done.”  His kids didn’t think it could happen. After all, they had seen the pain he was in from doing the thing that had made him famous.

Most of you didn’t expect it to happen. He hadn’t won a major golf tournament in years. (I know I am supposed to be talking about Jesus on Easter Sunday, but yes I am talking about Tiger Woods winning the Masters last Sunday.) In the past, as he piled up major titles—14 in a 11-year-plus span, he EXPECTED to win.  We EXPECTED him to win.

But what with his public flameout Thanksgiving 2009, his addiction to pain meds, his many moral missteps, his attempts at a comeback… the pain and his own self were his worst enemy. He had gotten close before in staging a comeback and winning a Major golf tournament, but people who know him said you could see it in his eyes that he didn’t expect it to happen. And then last Sunday, after several golfers on the leaderboard found the water, and then when Tiger on the 16th hole launched his ball on the perfect arc over the water, softly curving right to left and landing in a precise 2 foot diameter so it would roll 20 feet down a slope and stop 15 inches below the hole, that was when a few of you thought this MIGHT be an historic day, with Tiger winning the Master’s at 43 years of age. Jim Nantz said it was the most historic sports story he had ever witnessed.  But if you asked Jim Nantz first thing Sunday morning before he stepped behind the broadcast microphone, he would have privately said “no way.”[1]

…Like the scene Mary and the women must have experienced. Mary and the women didn’t expect what happened when they went to the tomb preparing to anoint Jesus’ dead body. The Gospel writer Luke tells us the women had seen the whole sequence of violent events surrounding Jesus unfold. They, like everyone else, assumed Jesus’ dead body remained just where it had been placed. They did not expect anything other than death.

What they found completely undid them. “Perplexed” is how our text puts it, but that is an understatement. Other ways to say it are: the women were disturbed, uncertain, at a loss.

Of course they were. Who could blame them? When the women arrived at the tomb and could not find his body, they were lost, between what they had expected, standing in an empty tomb, spices in hand, looking for a body AND then finding two men in dazzling clothes who ask them why are they “seek[ing] the living among the dead? Don’t you remember what he told you?  He is risen!”

The women run back to their family of disciples, those who are in the best position to believe, and they tell them everything they had seen and heard at the empty tomb, all that they had remembered.  They tell what they had seen to those who had walked alongside with Jesus for years, those who had heard him teach, those who had prayed with Jesus. And when they are done, they take a collective deep breath and wait for their friends’ equally joyful reaction.

This is what gospel writer Luke tells us:  “It seemed to the men an ‘idle tale’ and they did not believe the women.” The women’s testimony about Jesus, their Jesus being raised- the women’s words about God’s resurrection power breaking the eternal hold of death- it seemed to the eleven  disciples to be only empty talk, a silly story.

It is translated as an “idle tale.” But let me let you in on a secret that I learned from my friend Anna Carter Florence.  This word “idle” -- the Greek word is leiros. It is the root from which we get the modern word delirium.  It is not used anywhere else in the New Testament.  She says it is a word reserved for the locker room.  Think garbage. Think drivel. “Yeah, well that sounds like a load of [beep] to me” (Luke 24:11).[1]

You get the picture. You have to be crazy to expect it, yet alone believe it.

And the eleven didn’t believe. Not at first anyway. Despite the several hints scattered through the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ explicit statements forecasting his resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), when it happened, it turned out that no one expected it. It was just as hard to believe then that a man could rise from the dead - as it would be to believe it today.

If the dead won’t stay dead, what can you count on? It throws off the balance, upsets the apple cart of our expectations; it turns our neat and orderly lives inside-out.

The Gospel of Luke does us a favor by giving us the eleven disciples reaction to the GOOD news because, it is so, well, natural.  It is so natural to disbelieve something so unnatural. It is the very response you or I might have - or maybe do have - to such news.

I understand. I understand how testimony from the women sounded like an idle tale. Do you? At this moment in your life, do you find yourself in this tension when you have to decide either what you see is all there is to our lives and to our world -- OR that you will trust that there is a different power at work - a resurrection power at work? Are you at a time in your life when, if you are honest, my words of Empty tombs ring empty? If that is how you feel, welcome. You are at home here, and you are in good company with the other disciples. So, if you are, if we are, let us be reminded of the rest of their story, because the men’s reaction of leiros did not have the last word.

Last Palm Sunday, no one expected Tiger Woods to win. If you were watching, I don’t know what you were feeling as he walked up the 18th hole amid the cheers and the yells  of “Tiger, booh yeah”; what you felt when he hugged his son. In his victory press conference Woods used words like, “blessed,” “fortunate,” “lucky,” and “amazing.” Those words were almost never a part of his vocabulary in the past. He began by saying, “This is unreal to be honest with you."  (If you were watching Tiger walk up the 18th to cheers, I know some of you were excited about a great sports moment. I know some of you were unsettled because you wondered if he had done enough penance.  But it’s not about whether or not he deserves grace of who gets to decide whether he’s earned it.

It was a great moment but imagine yourself walking up the 18th hole  and you are walking beside the risen Jesus.

In the stories after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus Christ is  always somehow different. The same, but changed. His closest pals don’t recognize him immediately! When people break, or families break apart, and then heal and come back together, they never rebuild what was. They construct a new tomorrow. One that’s related, sure, but different. But that’s the price of redemption. And what’s amazing about Easter grace is that it doesn’t play by the rules and by what we expect. Our choices are never either/or. It’s never merely “Do everything right or we’ll never accept you again.”

The testimony of Easter is a significant truth we each must reconcile for ourselves, eventually: that reconciliation is available to all of us, even in our most broken places.

Thankfully, grace needs cracks to shine through. Yet redemption doesn’t come easily,   and it is certainly not how we EXPECT things to go.

Just ask Father Jean Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Department who rushed into Notre Dame to save its treasures.

No, redemption doesn’t come easily and is certainly not how we expect things to go when centuries ago …God suffered for  us through His crucifixion to show that God suffers with us and not only that transforms our suffering.

The power of resurrection is loose in our world, in our time, in our history. Resurrection is hard at work in our world. Easter rises. And there is nothing lieros; ….there is nothing idle about it.

The Lord is risen!

He is risen indeed!

“Longing for the Good Life” Series

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“GATHER- The Isolation of Life and the Promise of Community”

Theme

In this sermon remind the congregation that the losses of life can cause isolation as one distances in emotional pain and confusion. Joel calls us into community.

Introduction

It’s one of the hardest things I face in ministry. People are involved in the ministries of the church. We see them on many a Sunday.  But then they experience hard times - often as a result of a loss- and they disappear from the very place that aspires to be a place of succor and support to people in time of need. 

Words like “community” and “love” are used around here to describe who we are and how we are. One of our core values is “We support one another. We seek to be a scaffolding of laughter and joy in good times and care and support when people go through the hard times.”

But people just vanish. They stop showing up; they don’t return texts, emails, calls. It’s kind of like the religious version of ghosting -- the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.

I get it. I have done it, too. Following my divorce back in 2008, I did it and just kind of dropped away from the church my family had so actively attended and which we were very involved in. I was embarrassed that my former spouse and I, both ministers, had failed in our marriage. I was embarrassed that I could not honor a pledge I had made to a church capital campaign made during better economic times and pre divorce.

I ghosted.

Until a wonderful church member called me and said, “we miss you.”  She acknowledged my value. She extended an invitation. More than anything, she offered a listening ear. It is, in part due to that phone call from her, that I stand before you today. I realized how my self- isolation as a result of loss kept from the thing I needed: community and a sense of belonging.

The many faces of the losses of life can cause isolation as one distances in emotional pain and confusion. In the midst of losses people experienced, the ancient prophet Joel called people into community.  He says “Gather!”

We turn to the Joel text and hear these words: 

“Dress for a funeral and grieve, you priests; lament, ministers of the altar. Come, spend the night in funeral clothing, servants of my God, because the grain offering, and the drink offering have gone from the temple of your God.”

It doesn’t sound like he is taking us exactly to a happy place. But hidden in this lament is a call to action that is empowering. GATHER: Demand a fast, request a special assembly. Gather the elders and all the land’s people to the temple of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. (Fasting here is understood not as a form of penitence but as an act of solidarity.) Gather. Build community. Be a special assembly.

It is so easy to isolate. But there is something powerful in gathering with a “tribe.” Gathering instills identity when identity becomes eroded during crisis.

In 2017 the British government created a “Ministry for Loneliness” as loneliness was identified as a major societal crisis in Britain. The USA may be in a similar situation as people age with children far away and as many flock to cities or live in suburbs behind fences or behind social media.  We remember from our western civilization classes the philosopher Descartes and his dictum: I think therefore I am. I wonder if that wisdom has fueled radical individualism and inevitably loneliness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded us of another train of thought born out of the African concept of the self-built around the village’s role in raising a child. Tutu highlights the philosophy of ubuntu: I am because we are. I am because we are beckons us to be involved in each other’s lives; it breaks the isolation and loneliness after experiencing the locusts of life.

Our Reformed tradition speaks of each of you as “the priesthood of all believers.”

If you are looking for a Lenten discipline, I invite you to follow in the way of the One who we follow:

  •  Be mindful of the power that lies within community. Defy the natural tendency to isolate in moments of loss. Gathering instills identity when identity is eroded in moments of crisis.

  • Practice gathering by inviting friends or even a stranger for a meal; maybe volunteering as doing things with others.

  • Practice warmth and see the image of God in others …

Joel calls us to experience and live the good life. That life demands we walk towards our losses and build community.  Keep opening your wings to the image of God in friend and stranger.

FREE SOLO

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At the Academy Awards this past week, the movie “Free Solo” won for Best Picture documentary.  It is the story of Alex Honnold, who last year became the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan alone and without the aid of a rope -- the historic ascent of nearly 3,000 feet of vertical granite. I saw this movie just days before the Academy Awards, and was simply floored by the movie and by Alex Honnold. I believe his story - his ascent up this mountain alone - holds great truths and a deeper meaning for all us.

***

In 1923, the mountaineer George Mallory gave an interview to in which he famously explained why he was determined to summit Mount Everest. “Because it’s there.” He died in the attempt the following year. Alex Honnold, according to columnist Bret Stephens, seems to have a different explanation for why he climbs. “Because I’m here.”

Honnold, who is 33, doesn’t quite put it in those words, at least not in “Free Solo”. Honnold is not a thrill seeker. He’s a perfectionist who understands that the achievement of one supreme thing depends on the mastery of a thousand small things. That’s what  transforms this movie from one that’s just about one remarkable feat of daring and athleticism into something much deeper. Not just for those people who are suckers for mountains (like me), but for anyone who seeks to do anything well OR for anyone who seeks to deepen their relationship to God.

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There are many texts in the Bible that speak of mountains as holy spaces where one might encounter the living God, but almost all of them speak of experiences on those mountains, at those summits, and of what happens upon descent from the mountain. 

But, none of the sacred texts speak more than a whisper about the ascent. Yes, there is the Song of Ascents, a title given to fifteen of the Psalms, but none actually talk about climbing a mountain. So, what about the trek up the mountain?  Exodus says the "Lord summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and Moses simply "went up." (Ex. 19:20) Luke says that Jesus took Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray. (Lk. 9:28)

But, if you have climbed mountains of varying heights and degrees of difficulty before, you will agree with me when I say that there's more to it than these texts suggest. There is a lot of effort that lies behind these two words: “went up.”

Step, step, step. Stop. Catch your breath. Adjust your pack. Step, step, step. Breathe.

I am drawn to the ascent--not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery at the summit, or to the descent at the other end of the experience, but to the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God.

Sounds like what I may be describing is metaphorically the journey of human life and of human faith.

About the ascent of human faith …at least the kinds of life and faith journeys many of us have experienced, let me explain in light of our church’s two core values:

  •  We study.  We actively look to increase our knowledge of God’s word and God’s direction for us as captured in the Bible.

  • We pray.  Prayer is central in our discernment. 

These are two essential tools in our ascent of the mountain. In your own faith journey, what are you doing when it comes to your study? Are you expecting to ascend that mountain without ever putting on a backpack or breaking your boots in?

And with prayer, how is this prayer thing working for you as you are climbing? We’ve heard Jesus tell these same disciples to pray…and not to lose heart. I suspect you, like them, have problems with prayer. Sometimes there are no more troubling words than the words, “let us pray.”

So, in the rigors of the ascent, do you lose sight of praying? As you climb, do you list all the problems you have with prayer?  The problem you face may be practical: I just can’t find the time in my busy schedule for prayer; I want to pray but the pressure of life squeezes it out.

Or, as you climb, is the problem metaphysical? -- what does it mean to entreat God to cause something to happen? I suspect, the real problem - the deepest problem in prayer - is that we lose heart, we simply lose heart. If we really knew that praying for healing, praying for the joy for our family, for justice worked, then no one would keep us away from using prayer like a sure, steadying walking stick.

I am not saying we need pray more because what is required in a life of faith is dogged persistence. When the going gets tough, the tough get going in prayer.  No, I think when Jesus took his disciples up to the mountain to pray, and later said to them, pray and do not lose heart, he wanted them to see not only the eternal splendor of God but the trustworthiness of God.

***

Prayer and study are necessary and important in the conditioning and development of our life of faith.

But, I know first-hand that it's a difficult climb. How long it will take, or what kind of effort, I don't know and can't say.  I don't know because, like most of you, I am still climbing.  And some days the ascent is demanding, and I find myself more than a bit shaky and short of breath.

But, we must keep climbing. We climb in faith because you are here and your heart is restless until it finds rest in thee, O God.

Click here to listen to Pastor John’s entire sermon on making the ascent up the mountain.

On Remembering Mary Oliver and on the wisdom of stashing pencils nearby

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Yesterday we received news that the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83.  My social media feed this morning is full of posts of her poetry.

Some time ago, I think it was around 2005, my work took me to Bennington College in Vermont where Mary Oliver taught and wrote from the early 1990s to 2001. On one of my trips I stayed in a university house that Mary Oliver lived in during her Bennington years.  Having known of her poetry, I thought this was pretty cool. Oh, if “the walls could talk” I thought, wondering what poems were crafted here that had rippled out and into other houses -- homes and houses of worship.

Out the backdoor there was a trail that meandered through woods and alongside a marsh. I took the trail on two snowy February mornings and walked along the marsh wondering if this was the same walk she took daily that became the inspiration for Why I Wake Early (2004) with its poems about crickets, toads, black snakes, watching the deer, and finally, the importance of dwelling in happiness.  Friends at Bennington would regale me with stories of how she would walk the woods and come back with a completed poem. Rumor had it that she stashed pencils along the trail in the fork of a tree’s branches or in a crevice of a rock outcropping so she could compose a poem while she walked the hills and trails.

Mary Oliver’s poems were widely embraced which may be why her poems and life is trending this morning. They speak to the hunters who take to the woods for peace and connection as much as for trophy. They speak to the conservationists and environmentalists striving to preserve the woods. They speak to the suburbanites trying to navigate the terrain of their lives. They speak to all who are on the lookout for meaning and wonder. Her poems paid close attention to the natural world and in plain language conveyed larger thoughts that carried with an almost teaching, therapeutic, and homiletical quality.  Thus, her wide appeal to individuals facing loss and trauma or wisdom for a new direction or for words that would transcend.  I recall her poem about wild geese (“Wild Geese”).  She had such an appeal for me with my love of nature, and a preacher in search of the right words to share that will move and connect us to a transcendence much bigger than ourselves, especially when my own words seemed empty. Today I am thankful for the life of Mary Oliver and I encourage you to, like her, to be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. You might want to consider stashing pencils so you will be sure to write it down and not miss it when you observe it. 

I leave you with one of her poems:

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who made the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the miserable and the crotchety -

 

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light –

good morning, good morning, good morning.

 

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

     By Mary Oliver (Why I Wake Early, 2004) Beacon Press

Five Reasons to embrace the season of Advent

This week my friend Paul Burns, who once pastored a church in Nashville and now in Garland, TX posted on why we need to observe Advent.

“Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” During the season of Advent, we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and watch with expectant hope for his coming again. It is a four week period leading up to Christmas Day. As such, Advent is the time when we begin serious waiting for Christmas, for the birth of the child, but it is also when we think about the future the child promised and embodied and taught and lived, the kingdom of God he promised was coming but is already present in the world, if you can wait and watch patiently enough to see it.

I pass on to you Paul’s five reasons why we should observe Advent and why it has benefits for you:

1)     The culture we live in has virtually no interest in Advent. You won’t find Advent Wreaths lining the shelves at Wal-Mart. Or music playing about the second coming of Christ on the radio. There’s no war on advent talk on the news shows. And this is good news because it means that it is a much more spiritually pure season. 

2)     Advent offers an antidote for the instant gratification bug that our culture has caught. In the midst of what has become an incredibly self-indulgent season of more, more, more, and now, now, now, advent is about patiently waiting. It is a practice of the embrace of longing. We learn to wait with growing anticipation. We make ourselves so hungry for Christ that we began to want his presence and his ways above the things of this world. 

3)     Advent teaches us to be at peace when the world is not. Peace comes from knowing that everything is going to be alright in the end. Christ will come. It does not mean that we are passive in the face of evil. It means that we work toward peace with the sure knowledge of success. It’s less like treading water and more like swimming knowing that the shore is near. 

4)     In a “need to know” world, Advent points us toward mystery. There is a reality beyond our grasp and comprehension that we brush with if we are paying attention. God is mixing and mingling with us in strange and mysterious ways. But we must be open to the possibility of things happening that we can’t and won’t understand. 

5)     In a world that values speed, Advent invites us to slow down. Yes, there is a time for fast action, but there is also a time to take it slow. Slowing down allows us to take stock of our lives and to consider things more carefully. It allows us to experience wonder. When we rush we miss the good stuff. Sometimes I think we are in such a hurry that we don’t even really know where we are really going. Going slow allows us to consider where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going.

Take a road less travelled this December and enjoy the ride!

"This Is My Story..."

This week I have found myself humming the old hymn “Blessed Assurance” and singing its refrain:  “This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.”  If you are like me, you like a good story. If you are like me, you love telling stories. Turn your ear to a good story and you find it includes honesty, some confession about life’s embarrassing moments. It is revelatory as you come to know something more about the other person. A good story connects us through a shared memory or a shared laugh.

We are a collection of stories. But we are selective in the stories we share. We love to tell the stories of our travels or running into a Nashville celebrity on the street or seeing Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman while out walking in Percy Warner Park.  But we don’t tell all the stories in the table of contents of our lives. There are stories that are too painful to tell. To tell those types of stories requires trust. It requires the assurance that the other person will hold gently in her hands whatever you care to share. No one likes to admit that their shadows, but we all have them.

This month we asking “what’s your story?” during this season of generosity. We have been learning about stories of connection and stories of generosity. We’re telling these stories in our hope that EBPC is a place known for strong relationships and where we can support one another by becoming a scaffolding of laughter and joy in good times and care and support when people are going through hard times. Yes, we are a collection of stories and while we may not trust others with all the stories in the table of contents of our life, we gather in the name of the One who we can trust. The writer of Hebrews calls him a “great high priest” who pierces deeply and yet can sympathize with our weakness and calls us to his “throne of grace” in time of need. There we learn of a love stronger than hate. A life more powerful than death. A resurrection that sheds light into every shadowy tomb.

So, I ask you, what’s your story? Is it one of compassion? One of hardship? One of sadness? Whatever your story is…we hope you feel welcomed and accepted at EBPC because together we strive to form a family that loves and supports each other whatever you story may be.

What's your story? A post based on the reflections of the "Story of the Rich Young Man" mark 10:11-17

There are critical moments in life - in my life, in all of our lives - when huge questions are asked and huge decisions are made. Sometimes we are aware of the importance of the moment, but more often we are not.  These critical moments come, I believe, when we are struggling with life’s biggest and greatest questions:  where to go to college, whom to marry, what job to take, where to live, how to deal with a major personal problem we face, what to do with the rest of my life. These moments can happen at any age. And to any of us.

These moments can be difficult and they can be exciting. We wish more than anything else for clarity, not ambiguity. Those moments take us out of what we like to call our comfort zone because they are not often clear, they present us with new alternatives, new possibilities, and new challenges. They move us out of our comfort zone, those critical moments do, because they invite us to become, in some way, a new person. Change can be hard because nothing changes without conflict.

The young man in the passage is right in the middle of one of those important, challenging, uncomfortable, and promising moments. We have some big decisions at every turn. Certainly in our nation. But in our church. And in our lives. Big decisions are always difficult, rarely clear. In fact, maybe the bigger the decision, the less clarity. Some of you reading this post may be in the middle of  a BIG decision. Some may still be weighing the decision. Others of you this week committed to a decision, maybe led by the heart or by your mind, hoping the other would follow along.

 

I remember Peter Block, a mentor of mine, once saying: “we walk around waiting for someone to ask us the big question.” What qualifies as the BIG Question is one that makes the asker nervous in the asking.The young man in the familiar text this morning was asking the most important question in the world: “How do I inherit eternal life?”

 

I like how John Buchanan, in one of his sermons, translates the meaning of “eternal life” as the young man is asking: “what do I have to do to live fully, deeply, passionately, meaningfully, now, in this lifetime, and in a way that has the significance of eternity about it?” “Obey the law,” Jesus says. “I do,” the young man says. “Have obeyed all my life.” Then something very interesting happens. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Jesus loves this young man. Loves his integrity, his moral commitment, loves his question, I think, loves the fact that this man is asking a BIG question. The disciples are amazed. Amazed because Jesus has challenged one of their society’s fundamental assumptions: namely that money is a sign of God’s blessing. They are astonished because of the way he cuts through one of the most basic conceptual assumptions and invites people, all people—rich people, poor people—to think in new ways about their lives and what they are here for and what to do with their lives.

 And so Jesus might challenge us, might he not?

Like the young man, we have a lot of stuff. We love our stuff. We think about, spend our resources to buy more stuff, maintain our stuff, and our stuff. Our stuff can be a distraction. I am reminded of the story about the trusting abbot who was taken aback by the spiritual progress of a young disciple.  The abbot let the disciple live in his own lean-to down by the river.  Each night he would wash his one robe and put it out to dry.  One morning he was dismayed to find that the rats had torn his robe to shreds.  He begged for another from a nearby village, only to have the rats destroy that one as well.  The disciple got a cat, but he found he had to beg for milk for the cat.  To get around that, he got a cow; but of course that meant he had to have hay.  He got the hay from the fields around his hut.  He had to get workers to help.  Soon he was the wealthiest man in the region.  Several years later, the abbot comes back to find a mansion in place of a hut.  He asked the monk what was the meaning of all this?  "Oh Holy Abbot, there was no other way to keep my robes." 

Like him we walk away grieving because there is no way we can live without our stuff.  Our stuff is often at the center of the narrative of the story of our life.

There are the perils of materialism but I don’t think it is the main concern for Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ focus seems to be upon an invitation to a sincere and honest young man asking the BIG question, an invitation to let go of the strong hold, driven by anxiety and fear, that he had on his resources and to trust God for his salvation. What Jesus offered this young man was the opportunity to discover abundant and eternal life in the freedom of God’s love and the privilege of living for something more and better and bigger than personal security.

So “what’s your story?” And how does it connect to God’s story? That’s a hard question the story of your life is not told in a vacuum. Work can take precedence over worship and our social lives can be prioritized over spiritual disciplines. It is a hard question because words are the basis of our telling our story and we don’t have a confidence in the vocabulary of faith to discern and speak about where and how we see God showing up in our lives. So today I leave with you the question: What is the story of your life and how does it connect to the story of God?