Thursday, December 3, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Isaiah 62:1-12

From desolation to delight. That is how the narrative of Israel’s journey is told. This Isaiah (who is likely the third author contributing to the larger work of what we know simply as Isaiah) recalls the time of desolation. Israel had been conquered and was overtaken by the Babylonians and the Assyrians in their lives. Like the ancestors of so many of our African-American siblings, the Israelites were taken from their homeland and either kept in bondage or resettled far from their homeland. They longed to sing the songs of Zion on the holy mountain where the temple had dwelt.

By the 40th chapter of Isaiah, they had experienced redemption through another conqueror known as Cyrus the Persian. They were coming home and reestablishing their own land. By the time we get to the 3rd Prophet Isaiah in the 55th chapter, we are hearing new songs of hope about a new future. They had moved from desolation to delight.

I think desolation is how many people feel about our pandemic. As we experience the unfolding of our holidays with the deep desire to gather with our larger families now hindered by the coronavirus, we feel cut off and separated. Like the Israelites, we long for deliverance.

As we experience the tumultuous political, religious, racial conflicts described with each day’s news cycle, we sense this darkness that divides us … that brings so much harm … that threatens the very fabric of our communities. We seek a pathway forward that offers healing and wholeness instead of bitterness and divisiveness.

Isaiah’s message is that our God is a God of hope and redemption. As we move through the challenges in our world, we are looking for signs of hope. Isaiah’s promise is that God has not forsaken us. God loves us and has secured for us the greatest gift.

It is the gift of hope and life! With the gift of God’s abiding love, we then move from desolation to delight.

Lord, offer us the word that we have not been forsaken. Give us the vision for a community restored by your love and your grace. Amen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Matthew 3:1-12

For a person named “God-Is-Gracious,” John comes across as someone we would not normally think of as “gracious” … at least not by our common definition of grace. We think of grace as making things easier, but John doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction. He is calling people to repent of their sins and offering baptism as a sign of divine cleansing.

Then when the religious people show up, he challenges them by calling them a “brood of vipers.” For us religious types, that doesn’t really feel very gracious.

Then he talks about this one who is coming who will be sifting us out like the freshly-reaped wheat (with stalks and leaves mixed amidst the grain). The wheat is placed on an outdoor hard surface surrounded by boards or something solid framing it no more than a 2-3 inches taller than the hard floor (these form what is called the threshold). Then when a breeze is blowing, the farmer takes the winnowing fork and begins to throw the chaff (along with some grain) into the air. The grain falls to the floor, and the chaff blows beyond the threshold.

John tells us that this will be what happens when this promised one comes into the world. It is what I came to know in my childhood as being “sorted out,” and that rarely meant anything good for me. This doesn’t sound like grace to me.

Fortunately, as I wrote previously, I have come to rely on my Methodist upbringing and the lessons I learned about grace throughout my life. While grace always offers us a pathway to the heart of God through Christ, that doesn’t mean it is an easy path. It is a path that leads us to confront some tough realities in our own world, and upon confronting those realities, see where God is leading us. This is what is known as “sanctifying grace,” and it is all about how God transforms our hearts even when it doesn’t feel like warm hugs to us.

And where does this become real for us today? As we have journeyed through this pandemic, we have seen exposed the continued effects of systemic racism. We have been confronted with the reality that we have, all too often, been complicit by individual and corporate denial and excuses (no matter the color of our skin). We have been quick to denounce racial violence and proclaim (especially among the white skinned of our sisters and brothers) that we are not racist. Yet, in this time, I have again had to come to terms with how I have benefited from racism as one who has inherited a great deal of privilege throughout my life.

This isn’t about self-flagellation. This is about an awakening awareness that we have so often been afraid to see. It is about seeing Jesus’s relationship with what Howard Thurman calls the “disinherited,” in his powerful work, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949.

It is finally about creating the space for the marginalized and disinherited to speak

I have gone down to that river where John is baptizing to proclaim that I stand against racism … when, truthfully, I have not been honest about how systemic racism has benefited me. And I hear the voice: “Brood of vipers! Flee from the wrath to come! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” Is that me John is talking about?

This grace, you see, is about honesty. It is about seeing the truth of the divisiveness in our world. It is about speaking truth even when it hurts. It is about understanding that standing in solidarity with the disenfranchised of our world does not mean defending ourselves, justifying ourselves, or even beating ourselves up. It is certainly not to speak for the marginalized … it is finally about creating the space for the marginalized and disinherited to speak. It is about listening and developing a new relationship without needing to keep myself in the place of privilege or power.

“God-Is-Gracious” is all about proclaiming a gospel that turns our world on its head. This is the place where the last are first, the least are the greatest, and the weakest are the strongest. This is the place where the wheel of grace meets the road of human living.

In this season of advent, you are invited to step into the sometimes uncomfortable waters of grace with me. This is where the Word is made flesh, and uncomfortable as it is, it is the place where we meet Christ!

Transforming God of Grace: Speak to us of the transformative power of your Spirit as we seek to enflesh the message of hope and grace that comes in the form of our Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Luke 1:57-80

“We are going to name him ‘God-Is-Gracious.’” That was the answer Elizabeth and Zechariah gave when asked what they were naming this miracle baby given to them in their advanced years. John is how we say it, but the name hails from two Hebrew words that means “YAHWEH is gracious.”

The relatives were perplexed because no one in Elizabeth’s or Zechariah’s family had this name. Zechariah wrote it out without being able to say it. Until that moment, he had been unable to speak (as we shared yesterday), but upon writing out the name of unspeakable grace, he suddenly burst into a poetic fountain of words. The experience was no longer an experience without words; Zechariah could do nothing but speak and prophecy!

And his prophecy was all about grace.

Some have heard me say this, but it was early in my life that I learned about grace. Having been born into Methodism, I was fortunate to have several pastors who focused on this unique and primary theological principle. While there has always been an expected ethic related to how we live our lives, I have never been under the impression that salvation was something based on my own merit. I was taught that even my own ability to live ethically is the product of a gracious God.

So I was just starting off in ministry and was looking at how I would sign off on any of my correspondence. It seemed expected that clergy needed something more religious sounding than the customary “sincerely” placed above our names. I know people who use all different sorts of closing salutations, but mine seemed natural. It was all about grace, and to this day it is how I close my correspondence. When signing actual letters (which still happens on occasion), I tend to loop the cursive “J” around the word as my way of acknowledging that the only way for me to live out my life of faith is through grace that dwells in me.

This blog is called Reflections on Grace: Living Only in the Shadow of Grace. Everything in my life is hinged on this grace in all its forms.

So, in my mind, Zechariah had it right. The gift that leads us to the Christ alive in our world is grace. The way we find our way through the darkness is by grace. The way we find our voices is through grace. And when grace is incarnate … made alive in us … there is simply no way to keep silent.

God of abundant grace: May we experience your grace anew as we find our way through the darkness to the place where Christ is born. Amen

Monday, November 30, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Luke 1:5-25

I still remember the first time it happened.

Those who know me well know that I have a tendency to want everything done a certain way. I tend to worry a lot about appearance and first impressions. So early in my ministry, I spent a great deal of time making sure everything was done right in worship and, having grown up in a mid-sized church like Wellspring, I was never quite happy with the lack of resources or talent to pull off certain things in churches that were way smaller than my home church. I would then try and compensate by doing something with greater deliberation and intensity.

In time, I had grown so accustomed to worrying about the particulars that I could not answer one of my early mentors who asked me if I actually worshiped while leading worship. I started to shrug off the question by saying, “Sure I do.” But something in his eyes kept me thinking. I asked what he saw, and he said that, from what he could tell, I never spoke as if I were actually engaged in worship as much as I focused on creating worship that was engaging for other people.

Some of us worship as if waiting for the surprise; others of us go on as if there is no surprise to be had only to be shaken awake when the surprise unfolds.

He was right. Then there was that one Sunday etched into memory. At that time, I was on the staff of a church that was nearer the size of my home church, but I still spent so much time in the details of worship that I really never had paid attention. So there I sat as the choir began to sing and arrangement of “I Surrender All,” when it felt as if God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m right here. You can let it go. Embrace the moment and be lost in worship.”

And I worshiped as if for the very first time. With all the words I could come up with, it was finally an ineffable moment … a moment where words have no meaning and only detract. It was in a moment that had begun as rather perfunctory, yet it became a moment rife with the spirit of God inviting me to experience holy presence in a way I had not previously done. Some of us worship as if waiting for the surprise; others of us go on as if there is no surprise to be had only to be shaken awake when the surprise unfolds.

Zechariah and Elizabeth, in an earlier time, had prayed they would be able to have a child, but their efforts at conception were never successful. Culturally, they were considered inferior if they did not bear at least one child. As they aged, they realized it was just never going to happen.

At this point in their life, they had given up hope. The simply went about their lives doing the tasks that were expected of them in that day and time. One of those tasks was that Zechariah, who was a descendant of the priestly order of Abijah, was going about his duties in the temple.

Then it happened! He suddenly saw an image of Gabriel, and he heard this incredible announcement that Elizabeth was to conceive a child who would herald the coming of the Christ into the world. But this could not be. They were both too old. The angel told Zechariah that his inability to grasp what he was being told meant that he would be incapable of speaking about it until the child was born.

In a darkened world, it may seem impossible to see where God is at work. When so many people are acting out against one another, each claiming that God is on their side, some find it easy just to walk away without looking further. So where is God?

Breathe into the palm of your hand. Do you feel it? There are no words to adequately describe what you feel, but you know you feel it. This is God who stands with us in the darkness … who is with us even when we fail to believe it … who is in solidarity with us, no matter how dark and hopeless the world may seem.

Don’t worry about the words. The experience is enough.

Lord, we don’t know how to describe the moments when you reveal yourself to us and when you proclaim to be real that which we had labeled “impossible.” Be made known to us. Give us eyes to see you and words to hear you in the time of confusion and darkness. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Mark 13:24-37

The pathway of darkness and the hope of incarnation. These are themes that merge for us in unique ways in 2020. As the year began, I wondered what new things would come to us as the new decade began to unfold. Little did we know that this year would bring illness and death to our nation and our world on the scale we have experienced. None of these things resemble that for which I had hoped!

As with the biblical witness, plague began to beget plague. The pandemic led to necessary shutdowns … which led to job losses and an economic downturn rivaling the crash of 1929 … which led to incredible social unrest … which uncovered the implicit racism that has lingered just beneath the surface for decades … which led to protests and marches for justice. And all these things folded into the general election in our country, which itself demonstrated the incredible chasm that divides us.

Darkness defines much of how we experience life as this Advent begins. Jesus gets it. Jesus experienced, in his own time in human history, what darkness was all about. It was about foreign domination. It was about the very real powerlessness that Jesus and his own people experienced under the hand of Rome. It was a time when few had hope of ever experiencing liberation.

Yet Jesus began to speak about the darkness in a new way. This darkness, he said, is what highlights the coming reign of God. This darkness becomes the backdrop against which the liberating power of God is made known.

Jesus cautions us not to look for this liberating hope in conventional power structures. If we keep looking for God to show up as a violent, valiant warrior, we will miss God. God is the one who walks as one of peaceful, non-violent resistance … one who will stand with us as we resist harm being done in our world … one who understands what solidarity is all about. The God we seek is the one who meets us in our fellowship and who comes fully alive in our love.

This is the one known as Emmanuel … God With Us!

Our calling in this Season of Advent is to “keep awake!” Take courage and look boldly into the darkness. There you will see, amidst the anxiety, the terror and the fear, the face of God made known in those who somehow understand that the pathway to hope leads through darkness. It is “God-With-Us” whose face we see!

God, in whom we live and move and have our being: Grant that this season of Advent may be, for us, a season of hope. May we stand with one another and be the symbol of the ultimate hope that you stand with us in our darkness. Amen.

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Advent in the Season of Darkness

When this pandemic first began, we had just begun working our way through the season of Lent, and as Advent comes upon us, we are still seeing the effects of the novel coronavirus that has led to deaths numbering in the hundreds of thousands, economic downturns, political and civil discord, and darkness. Further, it is all stoked by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of government. Fear of acts of hatred. Fear of death.

Yet it is into this darkness that Christ is born. He was born in a land that had been subjected to Roman rule into a people who had no standing with Roman government. He was born into a land where people were treated as objects and executed at the whim of a local governor. He was born into a world of fear and darkness.

What I have discovered is that it is these worlds that tend to be the place where God is most profoundly experienced. This is the hope that is Emmanuel … God With Us … most especially in our darkness.

It is my joy to share this season with you! As we await through this season of Advent, may it be a time of hope as Christ is made known, not only in Jesus of Nazareth, but in those of us who live as the Body of Christ in this world!

I invite you to join me on the journey through this season with daily advent devotionals shared here in this blog.

Judging From Our Towers

I recall, while in college, doing a fairly thorough analysis of the story of the tower found in Genesis 11. The grade for this paper was a significant portion of my grade in that senior seminar class in Hebrew Scripture. The benefit of this has been that this story comes back to me over and again as an archetypal story that challenges our ambitions and dominant narratives as continually missing the mark. Here is the story:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lordscattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9, NRSV

I love this story of the tower with its top “in the heavens.” As the story unfolds, the people of the earth all speak the same language. As they come upon a plain known as Shinar, they decide that this is the place where they will “make a name” for themselves. They then set out to build a tower unlike the world has ever seen … “with its top in the heavens” … and by this, they intend never to be scattered over the face of the earth. Their goal is unity.

I see an interesting power dynamic going on here. The people of the earth fail to trust God to provide their unity, and they are sure if they can just build the tower large enough, they will be in the “place of God” to fix their place of power in the world. It is their desire to dance with God … to think like God … to carry the power of God … to be like God. Interestingly, this is the sin in Genesis 3 that starts the primeval story that ends with this narrative.

Also interesting is that Elohim (the plural name for God used by one of the traditions writing Hebrew scripture), glimpses something happening and has to “come down” to see what these silly humans are up to. God realizes that the gift of a common language here is leading them to no good, and God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

If we are honest, at first glance, this sounds like something for which we would be proud. We see unity and purpose on the part of the people, and as with little children, we take pride in their accomplishments. “Look at what you’ve done! (with tone rising on ‘done’) See, you can do anything you set your mind to do!” It’s good news. We aspire to know everything and to accomplish more and more.

It makes such sense to us as we find ourselves in a success-driven culture. With our modern technologies, we really do believe we can do it all and have it all. The Internet is one of the world’s greatest achievements, and in many ways, it has become our common language. In truth, we don’t actually have to “know” other languages … we just write in our language, and one of a thousand tools can instantly translate it to any other known, written language on earth.

Several years ago, I said to a friend that I was afraid the Internet might become our Tower of Babel, and he instantly wanted me to write it. After all these years, my friend, this is for you! (And no, I am not trying to tear down the tower as I use it to write this post!)

Our bricks are things like artificial intelligence, biometrics, bionics, and instant access to our friends, our enemies, and people we would otherwise never know. Our mortar is a host of devices … smartphones, cubes, and cylinders with names like Siri and Alexa … that are both ready to do our will and then nudge us toward the next purchase we otherwise would have never known we need.

It isn’t that these things don’t come with benefits, and both Siri and Alexa are part of my own world on a daily basis. They can help us climb the tower of greater health, greater knowing, and greater control over our lives. The problem here is when we look below us and realize that only a few of us even reach that first rung of the ladder.

To make a name for ourselves … to keep things great (like they were in the good old days) … is to rise above the fray. It is to create and enlarge the separation between us and the average person who can never enjoy the comfort we have in our places of power and privilege. It is to separate us from the pack.

So I begin to wonder at the untold portions of this story. Will the tower with its top in the heavens really be of benefit for those who made the bricks … for those who ground the mortar … for those who laid the brick … for those who were too sick or handicapped to contribute in any sort of way? It is my fear, knowing what I know about our human condition, that they would not.

It is interesting, finally, that the thing the people wanted to create … unity bound by a common language … is the very thing they lose. The people do not speak a common language, after all. While some speak the language of privilege and power, others speak the language of marginalization and powerlessness. While some speak the language of strength and domination, other speak the language of weakness and oppression. While some speak the language of wealth, most of the world speaks the language of poverty.

As I observe what happens at the place called the Internet … and our social media … and our various supporting technologies … I see a tower with its top in the heavens. And if we are lucky, we will have made a name for ourselves and discover a greater unity. Maybe I have missed something, but I am not seeing much of that outcome, at present.

In the end, I think Elohim was right. There is no telling what comes of this … and the many other …. towers we have built. What I do know is this: while we speak a language that is so often filled with fear and hate, Christ comes into our world speaking a different language. In this time of judgment … in the time of climate change and the storms and raging fires that accompany such change … in the time of racism, bigotry, sexism, and heterosexism … in the time of an unfolding pandemic that promises not to be the last … as we see the consequences of trusting in the towers we have built on the backs of the oppressed, may we hear a new language.

It is a common language. It is the language that unites. It is the language that does make a name for us. It is a language that speaks the truth. It is the language of love and trust! It is the language of the angels!

If we will but stand still long enough and not worry so much about getting to God, just maybe God will get to us!

From Fear to Faith

“Do not fear!” “Do not be afraid.” “Why are you afraid, you of little faith.” These are variations on a theme used repeatedly by Jesus throughout the Gospels.

In our culture, we often associate lack of fear with bravery and fear itself with cowardice. We lift up the fearless hero, and we demean those who dare to admit to their fear. We hear Jesus’s proclamation, “Do not be afraid,” as confirming our understanding of heroism and cowardice.

There is something, though, that stands out to me as an important way of hearing this. Jesus undoubtedly understands that fear is part of the human condition. It first appears in the garden story in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, when God discovers the man and the woman wearing fig leaves and asks why they tried to hide from God. The man’s statement? “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:10)

If you have ever felt fig leaves, you would probably understand the humor in the story. They can be pretty itchy, and making underwear out of fig leaves would make for some pretty humorous comedy.

Yet fear has a strong grip on us. In today’s world, we understand the experience of fear. We have the fear of a pandemic. We have the fear of domination hierarchies in the arenas of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and a host of other biases. We are in grief over the death of life as we knew it, and whatever this is that is emerging brings on its own level of anxiety and fear.

Jesus understood what fear is about, but he also understood that when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear, we tend not to make the best choices. When we let people use fear to manipulate us … when we let fear be a motivator for our choices and our decisions … when we let fear dominate and crowd out love, Jesus knows that evil has won the day.

So Jesus’s challenge to overcome our fear is to understand what Jesus means when he says he has overcome the world. Not by dominating the world … as Christians have often taught … but by loving it. Jesus is our compassionate Christ who puts us in touch with the Christ that is lived out through us. It is this Christ who practices this radical, fully integrated love that is expressed in love for the poor, the disenfranchised, those whom he called friends, and those whom he called enemies.

When we live in fear, we are incapable of finding our way to this type of love and compassion, which itself leads to transformation of our world. It is when we experience our fear, name our fear, and love ourselves enough not to let that fear govern our lives … that we discover that we have made room for love. And when we have made room for love, we have made room for God.

The prophet Isaiah, may have said it best of all: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” To understand this type of hope is to journey from fear to faith!


In the movie, Shall We Dance, John Clark (Richard Gere) is looking for something more exciting than the life he is living, and he soon finds himself learning to dance with a beautiful dance instructor (Jennifer Lopez), whose studio he spotted on his daily commute. After realizing something was amiss in their marriage, his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon) has hired a private investigator because she thinks her husband is having an affair.

It is at that point in the movie where Beverly is meeting with Devine, the private investigator played by Richard Jenkins, to find out information about her husband, and she asks him a question: “All these promises that we make and we break. Why is it, do you think, that people get married?”

He immediately responds, “Passion.” She smiles and says, “No.” He then says, “It’s interesting because I would have taken you for a romantic. Why then?”

Beverly’s response here is the key point:

Because we need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet … I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things … all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.'”

It’s finally about seeing and being seen at the deepest, most authentic level. In a previous post, I shared about what it means to be a witness, but here I want to take a slightly different turn to talk about what that kind of witnessing is all about.

It is about mirroring.

One of the greatest, yet least utilized, gifts of our Judeo-Christian roots is that we have story after story about how God mirrors the authentic us back to us … who knows every part of us and who loves us and calls us by name … and who then asks us to mirror that same authentic reality back to everyone we meet, whether in our family, in our community, or in our world … whether they are people whom we know intimately or people whom we would call “our enemies.”

Psalm 139 is the most poetic rendering of how God searches us and knows us … who is with us as we journey, and when we lie down for sleep … who knows every word coming off of our tongue … who hems us in behind and before … above, beneath, and beside us. It is this God who formed our inward parts and who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. As children of God, we are called to fully know just as we have been fully known.

That is what mirroring is all about.

As a credentialed coach with certifications as an End of Life Coach and as a Discipleship Coach, I have learned through the years that the most important thing I can do as a coach is to mirror the image of God I see in others. In discipleship, it is to empower people to see the Christ within them and enhance their journey to more powerfully mirroring Christ in this world. In death and grief, it is to let the Christ in us connect with the Christ in others that we might share the power of resurrection, which awaits us on the other side of brokenness, death, despair, and grief. This is my calling in ministry and an essential tool in coaching.

I have often quoted Father Henri Nouwen as he describes, in his book Reaching Out, a conversation he was having with a former student when, after a few moments of silence, the former student said, “Father Nouwen, I see Christ in you.” Nouwen responded, “It is the Christ in you who sees the Christ in me, and when we see Christ in one another, the ground between us becomes holy ground.”

Isn’t that what it means to mirror? Father Richard Rohr speaks about mirroring in The Universal Christ as he describes how the Christ in Jesus sees the Christ in all things and has compassion and love for the other because, when seen from this new perspective, there is no “other,” at all. When we see ourselves literally as the Body of Christ, it is Christ loving Christ’s self in us and in all things.

So where does this lead us? I’m thinking it speaks into our current realities where we are experiencing so many adversities and so much harm. Whether we experience harm and brokenness through the pandemic, bigotry, overt acts of racism, acts of violence or the overt destruction of the planet itself, the deepest indictment of humanity is our failure to see the divine DNA in everything and everyone God created.

And yet …

God cannot stop seeing the divine DNA … the mark of the Christ … in you and me. Even in this moment, God is wooing us and calling each of us by name. God sees you. God sees me. Just as we are!

So my journey is that of the seer. Not the doer of magic. The seer is the one who sees. In every encounter of every day, I look to see Christ and to mirror that Christ back to the one who is seen. It is to say deliberately that “your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”

And when we find ourselves mirroring the image of the divine … this Christ … in the ebb and flow of life … amidst the brokenness and the healing and death and resurrection … we might just discover that the ground on which we are standing is holy!

Sifting Out

It really should not come as a surprise to me.

The simple phrase “Let go and let God” was something I first heard somewhere during my college days. It was an almost trite phrase, yet it defined God’s ultimacy for a kid looking for something absolute. It has kept coming back to me over the years. It would later become a key theme in my life.

Early on, I would occasionally use it, yet I had not seriously plumbed the depths of its meaning until later in my ministry. As I continue to delve into its meaning, that deeper meaning tends to surprise me … usually in its raw simplicity.

That was the case as I read in Richard Rohr’s book, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi. It is there that he quotes Neale Donald Walsch:

Yearning for a new way will not produce it. Only ending the old way can do that. You cannot hold onto the old, all the while declaring that you want something new. The old will always defy the new. The old will deny the new. The old will decry the new. There is only one way to bring in the new. You must make room for it.

The truth in this is its remarkable simplicity. So why was it hard for me to see? I think it lies in the risk. As a child, I remember attending the circus where I watched trapeze artists swing from bar to bar. I can still recall my emotional response to that moment when the person would let go of the one bar and float momentarily above certain death before either grabbing the other bar or latching onto the arms of another person swinging from their knees on the other bar … it was sheer panic, with butterflies completely consuming my stomach.

Fear of scarcity … fear of loss … fear of death. That fear drives so much of our common life that it has become the primary motivator for our culture, our economy, our politics, and sadly, much of our religious life. We live with this notion that there is not enough to go around. Not enough power to share. Not enough resources to take care of everyone … food, water, healthcare, or wealth. Not enough grace. Not enough God.

It is this fear of scarcity that fundamentally drives systems of injustice. Racism, heterosexism, misogyny, ethnocentrism and any other of our “isms” that comprise systems of domination are rooted deeply in the fundamental notion that there is just not enough.

It is scary to let go. Even if we count ourselves among those who are subjected to these systems, we are afraid of losing what little we may have. Letting go just isn’t an option.

But Jesus came to challenge our fear with a gospel of abundance. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35) He is not being rigid here or even being demanding. He is telling us that there is an abundant life … known in integration philosophies as the “True Self” … which is far better than the small, scarcity-driven notions of life … known by those same philosophies as the “False Self.”

I’ve preached about the abundant life that God is offering all of us, and I have preached about the pouring out of self that is the ultimate imitation of Christ. What I had not seen clearly was the idea that I still have not adequately made room for the new … the abundant life … the journey to my truest sense of self created by God.

What we are experiencing in our pandemic-possessed world is more than a letting go. It is not just a pouring out of self. It is a sifting out (like being put through the wire basket where the particles and particulars in our life are separated from one another). It is uncomfortable, and it is scary. We fear losing life as we have known it, and all we want to do is go back to the life we knew before the pandemic began to exact its toll on us.

The hard news for us to hear is that there is no going back to just what we had before. Something new continues to emerge.

Instead of thinking about this as a tragic loss, I wonder what would happen if we saw this as making room for something new. Perhaps this is a time like so many prophets and teachers in the faith envisioned as a just society … a radically hospitable society … a generous society. Perhaps this is an opportunity to create the world envisioned in Matthew 25 where we have adequately cared for “the least of these” brothers and sisters and found in them the face of Christ.

Perhaps this is the time to listen to the cries of our black and brown siblings … of women in the work place … of immigrants … who want to be seen as children of God seeking justice and equal opportunities. Perhaps this is a time to listen to those who express a fear of scarcity and assure them that, when they let go of the bar to which they so tightly cling, they will be jumping into the arms of a God who loves them despite the harm they may have done.

That is abundant grace, and it is what resurrection is all about. You see, Jesus was sifted out in a brutal execution, and his resurrection had nothing to do with going back. I have said before that it is not resuscitation … it is resurrection.

It stands as the greatest message of the Christian faith: when we let go of the old, God will most certainly bring about something new. I think this is Dr. Martin Luther King’s image of the Beloved Community. A community of justice, hope, and peace. And it has little to do with the good old days. It is a vision of a new community.

Let go of the old, my friends, and after the moment of panic, you will discover yourselves as children of the resurrection … safely enfolded in the arms of God.