Monday, March 22, 2021

SEEKING THE WATER OF LIFE AS WE FACE THE CHANGES OF LIFE

 

I am struck that it is one year ago that the COVID wave crashed across our area, forcing us into quarantine mode. One year. I remember we all thought it would be for a short time, that if we sheltered in place well, we could all re-emerge at Easter and oh, what a day of resurrection it would be!

And here we are, a year later, and perhaps, if vaccines keep happening at the rates they are, PERHAPS we are achieving herd immunity and can together experience new life together at Easter,

So I have been reflecting on this past year, what I have learned, what I failed to learn, what I did, what I failed to do. There are so many lessons this past year offers and I believe that we need to take time to consider the lessons and be sure we have learned them well as we move into the future.

So tonight, Id like you to think about this past year. What significant events have been defining moments of the past year, what you have learned from them, how God has spoken to you through all you have experienced?

This is a season of change. Just as the length of light has grown longer, the days warmer, the buds just starting to poke through the ground across our area, change is happening, too, in our individual lives. Some of us are getting ready for moves, some are preparing young people for graduation, some are walking with loved ones who are sick and dying. We feel the changes wrought by aging increase with every passing day.

What are some changes you are facing?

Listing all of these changes, it is a bit overwhelming. And then when you place all these within the backdrop of a fast-paced, ever changing society, it can make you dizzy!

Change isn’t easy for us. For many of us, our attitude towards change is summed up by the bumper sticker: Change is good. You go first. Or by another bumper sticker: Change is good. Unless it happens.

How do you negotiate the many changes that you face in your life?  What resources help you move through change? What does your faith have to do with the changes you face?  Is it any help at all to you?

Arian Ward of Hughes Space and Communications Company said, “I’m no longer in the mode of trying to change people. I’m in a mode of finding a way to enable them to change. Because it’s going to happen naturally.”  We are going to age.  Friends and loved ones will move or die.  We will acquire new positions, new roles.  Who or what is equipping you to be able to change?  Who or what is helping you move through the transitions, which are the psychological process people go through to come to terms with change?

I have not always been graceful at negotiating transitions, but I have found that faith offers me comfort and a compass for those transition points.  For there is one who is the A to Z, the first and final, the beginning and the end. Christ’s presence bookends the beginnings and endings of change in my life. And when I sink into this truth, change and transitions are less frightening and disorienting, because through it all, my eyes are focused on the promises of God, who will be with me always.

Through those times of transition, when my soul has been parched and my spirit in a draught, Jesus has offered me the Water of Life which sustained and strengthened me so that I have been able to say boldly through the transitions of life: “I’m on my way! I’ll be there soon!”

Water, the water of life.  Many years ago a friend and I were checking out a new hiking trail for our summer church camp in the Catskill mountains of New York. For a couple of years, we had hiked the same trail in for two and a half miles and then hiked it out with our campers. But we realized that the trail went on beyond our turn around and ended at another point. We didn’t want to have to backtrack anymore so thought we would check out this seven mile hike.

We hiked the first two and a half miles. No problem. All familiar ground.  Got up to our usual turn-around point on a heavily forested plateau. But when you stepped to the edge of the plateau, you overlooked an expanse of wilderness that took your breath away. It was always hard to leave that beautiful spot.

My friend and I pulled ourselves away and began walking on the new path.  We felt pretty confident about our trail. Although every once in a while it got covered over in bushes, and sometimes we wondered if we were still on the trail or a deer path.

We stopped for lunch on a huge granite boulder, eating all our food and drinking all our water, as we lazily lounged on the stone like lizards in the hot sun.

After a nap, we continued on the trail, and began to get a little nervous: were we on the right trail? How far did we have to go? It was a hot day and we had drank all our water. We became more and more dehydrated and extremely anxious, as we wondered when we would ever get to the end of the trail. In fact, I have never been more scared out on a trail before.

Finally, totally parched, we could make out the trail head sign in the distance. About thirty yards from the end of the trail, I tripped and literally rolled my way the rest of the trail.

I learned an important lesson that day about water’s life-giving powers.  The lack of water clouded my judgment. I lost my sense of balance. I wasn’t sure which way to go, didn’t have the strength at times to go on. 

When Jesus says, come, drink freely of the water of life, I know the power that he is offering me for this trail of life I am trying to follow, even when I get lost, when the trail changes, when all the familiar signs around me are gone.


What trail are you walking? What winds of change blow fiercely in your life these days? What kinds of transitions are you facing?  There is one who was with you at the beginning of it all, and there is one who will be with you at the end. There is one who is your companion now, who wants to offer you the strength and sustenance to negotiate this time of change in your life.  Come. Come and drink freely of the water of life that Jesus offers us.

Monday, March 15, 2021

THE LENTEN JOURNEY: FACING HARD TRUTHS

 

I confess I have a heavy heart these days. 

The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church has committed to focusing on anti-racism during Lent. Each week, a bishop provides a midweek devotion on the theme of anti-racism. It has been so powerful to hear the different voices of my colleague bishops, as well as the music and spoken word of members from their conference, provide spiritual challenge and care.

This past week was my turn, and I made the mistake of reading the comments section in the UMC Facebook page. One person wrote, “Enough of the ongoing racism barrage. How about we do something else for awhile, like celebrate a Risen Savior.” As if the Risen Savior, who has broken down the barriers, would ever say while there are people suffering, “Enough already.” Or, as someone else responded, “You’re tired of it huh? Imagine experiencing racism EVERY DAY.”

Someone else wrote: “Enough with this constant racism theme. It is Lent.”

Now, that one stopped me in my tracks because, frankly, I can’t think of a better church season to look hard at racism in our church, our world, and ourselves than Lent. Pope Francis says that “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy and that it should be a season where we find concrete ways to overcome our indifference.”

Likewise, Catherine Doherty writes that “Lent is a time of going very deeply into ourselves... What is it that stands between us and God? Between us and our brothers and sisters? Between us and life, the life of the Spirit? Whatever it is, let us relentlessly tear it out, without a moment's hesitation.”

I can’t think of a better time for us to look inward to face the role racism faces in our lives, and how we can repent of it in order to partner with God to make beloved community, God’s kingdom come, than the season of Lent.

It isn’t easy spiritual work, but as with all spiritual work, the more we are willing and able to look at the hard truths that we’d rather turn away from, the greater the movement towards freedom found in a life of faith.

What are the things in your own life that you’d rather not face? What are those things you’d rather overlook or just dismiss? Because the more you back burner them, the more they will fester, grow, and eventually boil over. The longer it takes you to face them honestly the more your life will be dragged down by a weight that you don’t even know you are carrying.

That’s why I love Lent. It is a time for us to take this inward journey, knowing that no matter how hard it is, God is with us, our sure and ever present comfort in times of trouble, even when the trouble is something within us.

God loves you enough to help you face the hard things so that those things can die and give way for the new life found in resurrection.

Just imagine what blessings could be found on the other side of confessing our racism and committing ourselves to anti-racism?

I have been reading this Lent Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation by Latasha Morrison. It is a great book and I encourage you to get a book group started in your church.

She helps us face the hard truths of racism by giving us an orientation we should use when doing this work, so we can stay in it and not turn away when the going gets too hard or too close:

“If you’re White, if you come from the majority culture, you’ll need to bend low in a posture of humility. You may need to talk less and listen more, opening your heart to the voices of your non-White brothers and sisters. You’ll need to open your mind and study the hard truths of history without trying to explain them away. You’ll need to examine your own life and the lives of your ancestors so you can see whether you’ve participated in, perpetuated, or benefited from systems of racism.

“If you’re Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, or part of any other non-White group, you’ll need to come with your own posture of humility, though it will look different from that of your White brothers and sisters. In humility, you might need to sit with other non-White groups and learn their stories. You might need to confess the ways you’ve perpetuated oppression of other non-White people. People of color may need to confess internalized racism and colorism.”

We all have this work to do. May this Lent find growing in you a humility to make space for the lived experiences of those who aren’t like you, may it challenge you in a good way, motivating you to learn more, as we all grow in a deeper understanding of the ways of God, so all God’s beloved children may live in a world of love, dignity, and equality. May our commitment to do this work be a sign of our discipleship as Christ followers. And may others know us by this love we dare to live out.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Rising From the Manger

 

Today is the second day of Christmas and in some parts of the world known as Boxing Day, a day that originated in Great Britain centuries ago, in which the wealthy gave gifts to those who provided them a service, not just servants in their homes, but also postal workers, rubbish collectors and others. It is a way to care and give thanks for service. Who are you grateful for, those nameless ones who help you throughout the year? The bagger at the grocery store, the dry cleaner and his wife, the delivery person who always makes sure the package that they leave is perfectly hidden from anyone passing by.

I’ve been thinking about a lot about this day of generosity that comes right after Christmas. We woke up yesterday and unwrapped our presents, a symbol of God’s gift of love given to us in the Bethlehem manger. We celebrated Jesus’ birth with phone calls, good food, and a day of rest.

Now, what?

The great Christian mystic Howard Thurman writes:

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

The beginning of John’s gospel says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being  in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This has been such a difficult year for us all. But here is what is true: Nothing stops God’s coming into the world. No virus is strong enough, no rage is hot enough, no depression is deep enough, to keep the light from entering our lives and our world. That is what we remember. The light shines in the dark and difficult places of our lives, and it has not overcome it.

Now, you and I are bearers of this light. It shines bright by how we live. Are we willing to engage in the work that began at Christmas, that has now been handed to us to continue through Christ? Are you willing to find the lost, to heal the broken, To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace, to make music in the heart.

We cradle the Christ child when we care for others. Make no mistake, people are watching us, to see how our lives reflect this Life Light of Christ. How will you carry forth this light into the world? How will your actions give off the radiant Christ Light that gives life to all?

Good King Wenceslas is a familiar carol about the benevolent ruler who provided for the needy. The carol speaks of him doing this on the Feast of St. Stephen, which is celebrated today. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, known for his care of the poor.

a preacher from the 12th century wrote this about Wenceslas:

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God's churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

 


The carol speaks of him and his page coming across a poor man looking for firewood in a cold harsh winter’s night. Wenceslas tells his page to get food and drink and firewood so the two of them can bring them to the poor man’s home, even though it is not close by. The two set off but the night turns even colder and the page begins to tire from the walk and the cold. Wenceslas tells him to follow in his footsteps, placing his feet precisely where Wenceslas placed his. The page felt the warmth left from Wenceslas’ step and they were able to finish their journey to the poor man’s home.

 Wenceslas let his light shine in the darkness and others found warmth and life from it. And we are called to do the same.

As the final stanza of the hymn reminds us:

Therefore, Christian folk, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

As we rise from the manger, may we offer the Light of Christ to all we encounter through our acts of generosity, kindness, and justice-making.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

We Don't Always Get What We Want...

 

My mother died unexpectedly this spring. This season has been filled with so many memories that she made for us. She made it so very special. Each year, the neighbors knew the holiday season had started when my mother strung these red plastic bells outside the house. And then she decorated, making many of the decorations herself, including a large creche scene she made which is now one of the first things I unpack every year.

She’d fill the house with fresh cut boughs, so we looked like an indoor forest. The smell was divine.

But every year she would say the same thing: It’s been a rough year, don’t be disappointed on Christmas morning.

She was a single mother of three girls and worked hard to keep a rough over our head. So we all prepared ourselves for a lean Christmas.

And then, Christmas morning would dawn, and my sisters and I were always so stunned at all the presents that overflowed from beneath the Christmas tree.

Lean Christmas?! It never looked lean!

And then we would unwrap our gifts. There would be sock and underwear from JC Penney’s. A new nightgown from Woolworths. Gloves and scarfs and hats. A sweater knitted by an aunt. A new pair of Grandma Spence’s knitted slippers. Oranges in our stockings. And also a couple of toys or games that were on our Christmas wish list.

It never felt like a lean Christmas. We might not have been given everything on our list. But we were given what we needed. And there was so much love and joy as we unwrapped our gifts and held them up for everyone to see.


I didn’t realize it then, but my mother was teaching us a lot about Christmas. At Christmas, as the Gospel of Mick Jagger would tell us, we don’t always get what we want. We get what we need.

I think of what people were yearning for at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Hebrew people were tired of being oppressed. The scriptures had promised them a Savior, a Messiah who would bring them liberation. They were waiting for that wonderful, counselor, mighty God.

That’s what they wanted. But what did they get?

A baby, wrapped in a manger. This is how God came to be with us and offer liberation. Emmanuel. God with us.

The Savior didn’t come in the way many had hoped for.

The Savior came defenseless and vulnerable. God with us required tenderness, kindness and care. What a strange way to come to free the oppressed. What a crazy way to bring righteousness and justice to a broken world.

Yet, this is exactly what he brought us. If we could only follow the lessons he brought us.

Pull out your Christmas wish list. What is it you are wanting this Christmas?

Now, take a look at it again. What is it you need this Christmas?

May this Christmas you find growing within you renewed hope.  An increase in your love of God and neighbor. A tenderness that you have never felt before. And may you express all this with generous kindness and care.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hearts all blessings found in heaven.

As we listen for the voices of angels and watch for the star, may we find Christ being born once more in our lives and in our world and may God give you what you need this Christmas.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

PINING AND PREPARING

 

Hallelujah! I give thanks to God with everything I've got—Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation. God's works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!
Splendor and beauty mark God's craft; whose generosity never gives out, whose miracles are God's memorial—this God of Grace, this God of Love.
(Psalm 111, from 
The Message)


It feels like the work of the Holy Spirit, that I am starting this 

Advent Journey, this walk to the Bethlehem manger, with this scripture reading. Because my world has gotten really small these past nine months. I used to see God’s works all the time: when I flew up to Montana, when I drove through Wyoming, and I hiked through Colorado and Utah. God’s works were so evident and so great and filled me with endless enjoyment.

But all these months of avoiding COVID has shrunk my world. And it is really hard. I miss simple things, like whenever I had trouble getting past writers block, I would head to a Starbucks and work there. Mind you, I don’t drink coffee, but there was something about the atmosphere that always helped me focus.

I miss movie dates.

I miss meeting friends at a restaurant.

I miss seeing family in person.

What are things you have missed over these past months?

I confess that I am getting a bit impatient in the face of these restrictions, and when I get impatient I get a little cranky. Maybe you are too.

And all those feelings are really messing with what I crave this time of year: the anticipation and joy of the coming of Christ at Christmas. I mean, how am I supposed to feel joy when I can’t gather with people I love? Where is celebration to be found if I can’t invite the conference staff to our home for the annual white elephant party? How can I experience that profound peace if I can’t look forward to raising my candle in a dimly lit church and sing Silent night together?

And there is that scripture that literally fell into my lap this morning:

Hallelujah! I give thanks to God with everything I've got—Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation. God's works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!
Splendor and beauty mark God's craft; whose generosity never gives out, whose miracles are God's memorial—this God of Grace, this God of Love.
(Psalm 111, from 
The Message)

How right it is to ponder this scripture as we begin our Advent journey this year. God didn’t wait until all was right with the world to enter it. God didn’t wait until disease was eradicated to come to us. God didn’t wait until political infighting found resolution, God didn’t wait until oppression and injustice were vanquished before making a home with us.

It was into the very mess of the world, into a country that was being held captive by Rome, to a people who had known slavery and oppression, to a family that knew scandal because of an unplanned pregnancy, into all of this, God came.

And so God will again break into our world. And at the start of Advent, we are called to make our way to the manger to experience yet again Emmanuel, which means God with us.

As you make your way to Bethlehem, as your heart prepares him room, may you open your eyes and hearts to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s miracles. A God whose generosity never runs out. In the midst of these very days we are living, may you give thanks to God with everything you've got

And may you sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Where Is Jesus To Be Found

This week, @sharifawrites asked this question on Twitter: “I have been imagining where Jesus would be found if he were here (in the United States). Where do you think He would be and why?” The responses had me in tears as I held these word-pictures in my heart:

*Probably walking to the local church to speak to his people. But he’d stop at the spot by the Family Dollar where the homeless amputee, sleeps at the corner.

*He’d be late to church because he could not simply pass the man sleeping at the corner. Saw his face and knew his whole life and was moved by compassion to be with him.

*I think he’d stop and heal the man and then the man would follow him to church and the church would scratch their heads and feel uncomfortable and Jesus would tell them all a parable that would keep them seeking him for months.


*In our crumbling rural towns acting as the designated driver at bar close and the caretaker to the elderly whose children have left them for the draw of the city.

*I imagine Jesus: Asking “who do people say that I am?” on the Florida or Texas coasts (since he loves both water and talking to problematic religious experts). Hosting the BEST outdoor dinner parties. Living on the “wrong side of town.” Telling LOTS of parables about greed.

*At the border. Simultaneously weeping with families and calling out the complicit ones. And maybe in my house doing the same.

*He would be found comforting every scared and hungry child. He would wipe their tears and hug them until the tears stopped. Then He would feed them and tuck them in a warm and clean bed. The children would wake up tomorrow with a sense of hope.

Here is my own thoughts: He'd gently rub the deep indents that have been created on the faces of healthcare workers by PPEs at the end of their shifts and their faces would be simply glowing when he finished.

How about you? If Jesus was walking around the US right now, where do you think he’d be found? I hope you write down your thoughts in the comments!

Here is one final post someone wrote:

*Is it possible that Jesus would be in places that would surprise all of us in this thread, and not just in the places we’ve judged to be most in need? And is it also possible that, while imagining the “other” places he might be, we’re forgetting that he is right here?

Be well! Stay safe! Wear a mask!

With love,

Bishop Karen

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Dream of a Common Language

 Today, the United States elected a new president. Looking at the vote tallies, I am struck by what a divided nation we are. It is as if there are two (or more) understandings of the US, and the chasm between the two is wide and deep.  I have heard from people who are no longer speaking with parents, who have unfriended friends, and who have been maligned by those who live in that “other” America.

How do we close the chasm? How do we share a vision for an America that is for everyone?


The poet Adrienne Rich wrote about “The Dream of a Common Language”. The poet felt that poetry, art, and feminist ideas could create a common language to unite a fractured humanity. As a Christian, I, too, yearn for a common language. This language, for a Jesus-follower, is Love.

Love is the language that helps us enter into another’s worldview.

Love is the force that causes us to open our hearts to another’s pain.

Love is the energy that drives us to build a better world.

Love keeps us growing, pushes our world to expand beyond our comfort zone to include those who don’t live, love, or look like us.

Whether you are cheering the election results or feeling despair, learn the language of Love. Lean into this Love as you greet your neighbor who had the other candidate’s signs on their lawns. Listen with love. Bring your full self into this moment, and step into Love’s demands.

One of the poems in Rich’s book holds up a model for us of how we begin to speak a common language together:

“I choose to love this time for once
with all my intelligence”

Be well! Stay safe! Wear a mask!