Mystery

(Message given December 9, 2018 at Newberg Emerging Friends Church)

choral book

The mystery of Christmas.

It’s something we hear a lot about at this time of year, held out there for us as part of the magic we might be missing in the bustle. Embrace the mystery!

What exactly do “they” mean when “they” say that? Probably not the “Twelve Slays of Christmas…”

twelve_slays_christmas

…or “Murder for Christmas”.

murder for christmas

Nope, I’m guessing the magical “mystery” of Christmas is probably summed up best like this:

Now, far be it from me to argue with “them” or especially with Amy “She-Who-Is-Christmas” Grant, but…

Look, speaking as the self-proclaimed expert on Christmas nostalgia, I gotta say: what’s with the big focus on mystery at Christmas? What I love about Christmas is the traditions, the patterns, the nostalgia, the doing it all the same way! There are no SURPRISES. 

That’s why I can listen to the Ray Conniff Singers at Christmas time, because it reminds me of Christmases I knew growing up. That’s why I inflict Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on my family every year, because they are FAMILIAR! Not because they are a mystery.

And if we think about the story itself: I mean, come on, where is there mystery? We know the plot by this point, am I right? My non-faith friends at work know the plot. Why the word mystery at Christmas? It’s not about surprises, it’s about the tried and true, the known and familiar…right?

What if I told you…and lean close, that’s the cue that I’m putting on my movie trailer announcer voice and am about to say something super obvious

What if I told you…you can have your known and familiar and nostalgic Christmas AND you can embrace the mystery? What if I told you…mystery, in the biblical sense, in the wonderful sense…isn’t really about SURPRISE at all! (At least not at this point in history.)

Mystery IS a wonderful word to noodle around in our minds at Christmas, to help us delve into a meaningful experience which goes even beyond my love for nostalgia. I love that I was assigned this word as something to explore tonight, because Christmas mystery is both something revealed in the past, and something that invites us infinitely into the future.

But first…we need to untangle ourselves a bit from some of the layers of the word “mystery”.

I grew up with one of the great mystery solvers in history very much in the forefront of my mind.

mystery machine

Scooby Doo! The Mystery Machine! Every single episode, “those meddling kids” followed the clues and solved the mystery. I was taught that’s what mysteries are–mysteries are things to be solved. Figured out. Sleuthed.

It’s strong in our British and American literature. Those great mystery writers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to name two, who created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey…they have woven their way into our national consciousness. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 7.58.12 PM

Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes, a detective who keeps appearing in adaptation after adaptation.

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 7.58.27 PM

In all of these, we learn that in the face of a mystery, you look for information. It’s cerebral, an intellectual exercise. It’s deduction. If you find enough of the pieces, you can put it all together in a satisfying answer that brings closure for everyone. 

I think a lot of us have that idea in mind as we hear “mystery” today in our world. 

But biblically, the Greek word “musterion” is quite a bit different. We get our English word mystery directly from the Greek “musterion”, not as a translation, but simply by transliterating the letters. We took the word, but we’ve changed the meaning.

In the bible, “musterion” is a secret…a Divine secret. It is a secret that cannot be figured out or deduced or known by human beings. It’s a Divine secret that must be revealed by God, because it is so far out of realm of conception, so far out of the bounds of how the world functions. It’s beyond deduction.

The great thing is, God LOVES being a revealer of mysteries! Mystery in this sense is like the glee felt when hosting a party, where you’ve given thought and time and attention to every detail, and have some special element that each guest will love. You can’t WAIT to get to the day and reveal the mystery of all that you’ve prepared to honor and celebrate each person at the party!

Biblical mystery, Divine mystery, Christmas mystery is just this: God having a plan to show love and care in a way that no one could possibly have guessed; and the joy of revealing the ever-deepening layers of this well-prepared secret!

You see this through the references to mystery in the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 2:7: “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” God’s had this planned for our good for a long time!

What is the mystery? Well, it’s several things, actually. God has a lot of good things planned for us! But first and foremost, Colossians 2:2 lays it out: “…in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ…”

The most profound mystery, the most powerful and essential Divine secret revealed for our love and care, is Jesus himself…God laying aside power and majesty, identifying with humanity, in the most humble way. Jesus taking on brown, marginalized flesh. God forever joining God’s self to humanity and to this infuriatingly unjust and oppressive world.

As confusing as I pretended it was for me at the start of this message, this is exactly why it is right for Christmas to be associated with mystery. 

So the Incarnation is the central mystery, the essential secret revealed to the world for our redemption.

But as I said, like a deliciously inventive and creative author, God has more secrets and plot twists to delightfully reveal. Just when the Jewish people started to get their head around the incarnation, here came another mystery, in Ephesians 3:6: “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

That’s one they couldn’t deduce! That’s one they fought and wrestled with for awhile, and it needed a lot of Spirit work and revelation for everybody to grasp and accept it. Jesus becoming a Jewish baby didn’t make them exclusive winners. The Incarnation is humanity’s mystery to share-it’s for everyone!

And then another delicious plot twist, as the mystery deepens even more, as a more complete plan was revealed. Ephesians 1:8b-10: “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment.”

What is this mystery? “To bring unity to ALL things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

Not just the people group Jesus was born into.

Not just the Gentiles, not just all humanity. But EVERYTHING. Jesus becoming human is transforming and bringing unity to EVERYTHING. All things in heaven and on earth. All of creation. All of the spiritual realm. All the powers that seem at war with each other, destructive to humanity and creation, EVERYTHING is going to be brought into proper alignment and unity by Jesus. 

This is the far reaching power of this mystery which God has revealed! This is the glory of God’s plan from before creation. 

This is our bright and shining hope in a dim and dark existence; a divine secret and a cosmic hope that keeps finding new layers of depth as time passes on.

From the cosmic stretch which includes everything in the universe, all the way to the intimate personal connection with us…this mystery knows no bounds.

Colossians 1:27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Christ in you! Not only joining in solidarity with marginalized people long ago. Not only spreading beyond Israel to all of humanity. Not only coming against cosmic spiritual darkness and bringing all of creation and heaven and humanity into unity with Jesus.

Christ in you. Christ with you. Christ living, breathing, surrounding, healing, empowering, encouraging, convicting, forgiving, and leading…in you!

Some would say the ultimate mystery of God is the union we can experience with God’s very self, all made possible by Jesus. 

Do you see? 

Do you see how mystery is the past, what God has already done, the amazing truth revealed in Christ’s birth? And do you also see how it is future, infinite, ever-expanding…drawing us deeper, calling us to a union with God in which we cannot help but be surprised and beautifully moved to new and never-before-seen places?

Richard Rohr says it powerfully in The Divine Dance: 

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand–it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!”

It took me several weeks after they asked me to speak on mystery tonight to realize this topic had a big connection to my own spiritual life over the last 6 or 7 months.

I’ve been reading Christian mystics; specifically, medieval women Christian mystics. 

David Benner writes,

“…Mystics differ from non-mystics in their rejection of the notion that the mysteries of life are simply gaps in knowledge. They realize that the really important mysteries of life will not be eliminated by reason or experimentation. They teach us how to love mystery rather than fear it. They teach us humility, tolerance and wonder.”

Mystics show us a pathway outside of our rational, deductive spirituality and help us embrace mystery and union from a different place. And like an onion, layers upon layers unfold before us in our exploration. Always, always, the mystics are describing an inexorable movement toward intimate union with God.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, from the 1200’s, captures this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 7.59.40 PM

Love leads us into mystery, binding us layer by layer, piece by piece with the Creator of the Universe. It is rooted, so essentially and eternally rooted, in the work of God through Christ, bound with the manger-born one who taught and healed and bled, out of love for us.

Listen to Hildegard of Bingen, 100 years earlier in the 1100’s:

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 7.59.52 PM

Reading, praying, meditating, dwelling in the words and the worlds of these women has helped me truly embrace the Mystery.

It’s deepening my connection to the past reality of Jesus who lived and breathed and walked our world. It’s returned a sense of awe, a sense of wonder…a profound awareness of the great ‘otherness’ of God, but this is the kind of awareness that produces longing. This journey has opened up a new future, caused a desire in me to “endlessly understand”, as Rohr describes it.

Side benefits have appeared along the way. Reading back almost a millennium, the cultural barriers and blinders sometimes so obviously appear. Even for Hildegard, an accomplished theologian who wrote popes and kings, who toured Germany twice on preaching tours as a woman in the middle ages…even for Hildegard, who critiques abuses of the power systems in the church and the state…it’s so easy, from a thousand years distance, to see that even some of those critiques themselves are bound by the time and culture in which she lived.

But then there are these moments…these holy moments when words seem to literally have dripped from the heavens through her pen, and almost a thousand years later they can soar off the page and explode with power into my soul. 

In these words and moments I see the God I know today; I glimpse the Divine One, beyond time, beyond culture. And there are even times where the power of the words gives me glimpses of yet-unknown facets of our Creator, creating a yearning in me to experience and live in a yet deeper union with God.

Friends, the proverbial “they” are right!

Mystery beckons us this Christmas and always. The mystery of Incarnation, the mystery of union with God lies open before us. May we receive it. May we pursue it. May we be transformed by it.

May we, with humility, acknowledge our own barriers of culture and time which interfere with our judgments of right and wrong, just and unjust. May we acknowledge we may not have it all nailed down. May we let the Divine lift off the page, into our minds and hearts, and may we walk into the ever-deepening unknown intimacy, with Jesus as our guide. 

I’ll close with the words of Catherine of Siena, from the 1300’s, letting her words lead us into a time of open worship:

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 8.00.03 PM

Round 2–Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 6.19.27 PM

The moral of the story is, despite all your yelling over the years, I’m actually decent at seating. The 9, 10, and 11 seeds got the upsets (and the 12 seed almost did), but other than that it held to form.

Here are your new matchups for round 2. Get your votes in by Friday at 5 pm PST, and then get ready to vote in 24 hour blocks to get to the winner. Also, I need your submissions for the best version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Friday at 5 pm PST as well.

#1 Wolves at the Gate

#9 Reawaken

 

#4 Lexington Road

#5 Robbie Seay Band

 

#3 Page CXVI

#11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin

 

#2 Seacoast Worship

#10 Marcy Priest

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus-Bracket Released

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special introduction to this year’s Advent Caroling Madness! Thank you, Jon Curtis Gemeroy!

Advent is beginning, and the season of Advent was created to help us tap into the longing we have for things to be made right and just in the world. This song is a great example of that.

I figure I might as well start with the yelling about my terrible seeding right off the bat. BUT! Let me explain. The line that captures this song for me is: “From our fears and sins release us”. Out of everything I listened to, I think Wolves at the Gate captures that angst and longing the best! So there you go. Commence your “ALL CAPS” yelling at me.

Voting is now open, with a deadline of Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 5 pm PST.

#1 Wolves at the Gate   Jon Curtis Gemeroy nominated this version-it’s not my usual style of music, and certainly not one I associate with Christmas. But as I said above, it captures the angst and longing of this song.

#16 AdoreVictoria   I added this song and the #10 and #15 seed as well, since I only received 13 nominations.

#8 Fernando Ortega   Jennifer Perez and Erin Knoch both nominated Fernando Ortega’s version of this song.

#9 Reawaken     This version was nominated by Margaret Fraser, I think the first time she has participated in Advent Caroling Madness. Thank you!

#5 Robbie Seay Band   Grateful as always for the new music Bethany Bylsma always brings my way through this. And waiting for her yelling when she listens to what I seeded #1.

#12 King’s Kaleidoscope   Jennifer Perez also nominated this unique version, which I enjoyed.

#4 Lexington Road   I really like this one…and maybe should have seeded it even higher. Thanks to Erin Wilson for the nomination!

#13 Voice Male    David Sherwood gave this excellent a cappella version.

#6 Sandra McCracken & Derek Webb    This is another suggestion from Bethany Bylsma. Derek used to be in Caedmon’s Call, and these two were married at the time.

#11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin    Jay Thatch submitted this version, and I know one of the artists personally!

#3 Page CXVI   This one also captures the sense of longing. I made Bethany Bylsma face off against herself in this matchup.

#14 Steve Green   Bethany suggested this version, as Steve Green is her “parents’ version of Amy Grant”.

#7 Chris Tomlin   Leah Tenkate nominated this version-a simple, one voice a cappella version for most of it.

#10 Marcy Priest   I found this one to fill a whole in the bracket. I like how it also is a bit angsty in parts.

#2 Seacoast Worship    Beautiful harmonies, well-expressed longing. Love this one from Bethany Bylsma.

#15 Shane and Shane    My Youtube searching brought this one to fill out the bracket.

There you go! Listen to them all, make your votes by Wednesday at 5 pm PST, and then we will launch round 2.

Time for Advent Caroling Madness, 2018!

We are getting close to the Christmas season, and as I already warned my family, I am ALL IN this year. So we are doing things a little differently this year, opening song nomination for all the songs NOW.

The original brainstorm was 5 years ago. It works like this: I choose a Christmas song, and you send me your favorite versions of that song (please try to find it on YouTube, so I can link it so all can listen). Then I set up a bracket like March Madness, and we all vote. Winners advance, and we vote again. Rinse and repeat until we get down to one best version of each song. You can post versions (with links) as comments here, or on my Facebook page, or send by email.

This year, we will be doing three songs. First, a true Advent song, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”. Someone suggested it last year, I’m sorry I don’t remember who.

Second, we will find the best version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, suggested by Sienna Lundeen.

And finally, we will wrap it up with “O Holy Night.”

Here’s what we’ve done in past years:

2013:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel                         The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

Angels We Have Heard on High                    Pentatonix

Joy to the World                                                Aretha Franklin

Original Christmas Song                                 Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant

2014:

Silent Night                                                        Simon & Garfunkel

2015:

Coventry Carol                                                  Assyrian Singers

O Come All Ye Faithful                                     Tasha Cobbs

2016:

Good King Wenceslas                                       Colbert, Patinkin, Stipe

What Child Is This?                                           Andrea Bocelli & Mary J. Blige

Amy Grant Christmas Cheerfest!                   Breath of Heaven

2017:

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear Ella Fitzgerald

The First Noel Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22

So use this Thanksgiving weekend as your entry into Christmas! Send me your best versions of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “I Heard the Bells in Christmas Day,” and “O Holy Night”!

Brackets and voting will begin on December 4. Submissions are due on the following schedule (but the earlier you get them to me, the easier it is as I create the brackets):

Nov. 30: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Dec. 7: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Dec. 14: O Holy Night

Share with your friends! Get the word out! Rock the Vote!

Hadrian’s Wall

It isn’t remarkable to look at, this path I walk atop the stacked stones of Hadrian’s Wall–but it is an ancient border, an historic boundary, a demarcation of Empire. For 1900 years these stones have weathered the ebb and flow of human history.

Telling the story of the wall depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.

On the south side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called barbarians. Just steps behind you, a bathhouse and a granary, barracks and a temple are all the evidence you need to prove your superior civilization. Goods from what are now Spain, Italy, Germany–even spices from as far away as Turkey lie in your fort. It’s remarkable evidence of the travel and trade made possible by the Pax Romana, a peace which you have helped create by your might of arms.

On the south side, Hadrian’s Wall is the boundary of civilization, the last marker of all that is ordered and cultured and superior and good.

But on the north side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called oppressors, aggressors. For three hundred years those Romans have taken your land and ruthlessly killed and punished any of your people who showed any hint of independence. Your Picti and Gaelic culture is also rich, hundreds of years old.

On the north side, Hadrian’s Wall is the sign of theft and aggression, of those who want to eliminate your uniqueness and subjugate you, bending you to their way of life. You know they would kill or enslave you, ripping you from your home and sending you to another wall on another boundary of the empire to be their mercenary soldier.

The sweep of time brings more complexity. Those south of the wall eventually pull back and leave Britannia entirely as the Empire crumbles everywhere. And those to the north discover that even as Hadrian’s Wall wanes as a boundary, the coastline waxes as a new threshold, a new demarcation.

Telling the coastline story also depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.

On the shore, the Picti and Gaelic people see boats of barbarians arriving, pillaging, raping, stealing. But in the boats those Danish Vikings, with their equally rich tradition and culture, see new land in which to live, explore, colonize.

The former “barbarians” now decry new “barbarians” in the never ending us/them chessboard.

Nor does it stop as time marches on: Saxons, Vikings, Normans…wave after wave creating boundary lines and borders that ebb and flow, each side of the boundary telling a different story of the “other”.

I smile grimly and shake my head, realizing that all I’m really doing as I walk this ancient wall is musing on my own version of “history is written by the victors.”

I would imagine if you took a DNA sample from random people in Northern England and Southern Scotland, and sent it in to 23 and Me for genome testing, you’d find that the blood flowing in the veins of many of today’s people comes from those who once stood on opposite sides of the boundary lines. Some people today are the lineage of former enemies many times over through the centuries.

So which side of the boundary…upon which side of the wall do I stand?

Or perhaps a question that interests me more: given all the divides between people and communities, given the divisions and complexities within myself…can I become a person who tries to understand and value the people and the community who live and dream on the other side?

Our world seems to be abandoning that desire to find understanding, as the threat on the other side appears ever greater to us. Some of that threat is real. There are oppressors who come and pillage, who make impossible the best parts of life, the intellect and the arts and family and home. And there are oppressors who suffocate and subjugate with a smile, who enforce conformity to their “civilization” in ways that oppress.

A haunting truth lies rotting behind the veneer of civilized modernity: force and military might make civilization possible. We humans have an ancient history of not living into our best selves. Time has shown again and again that weapons and borders have almost always been required for humans to have the safety and freedom to compose verse, paint frescoes, stage dramas, create art. Whether it is Hadrian’s Wall backed by Roman broadsword, cannons fueled by gunfire, or Trident missiles on submarines, this is the world as we experience it.

I confess I have been naive enough in the past to not open my eyes to that truth. But even looking it in the face, I do not have to make the way of the world my way of living. As a Christian who follows Jesus, the one born as an outsider to Empire and who died crucified under Empire power, I believe I must not.

Christianity crumbles when wedded with empire, as the church wields power to civilize, colonize, evangelize. Fear of the barbarian or infidel is stoked to flame, leading the church to compromise the values demonstrated by the one who took up the cross. The examples could fill a gruesome book: Constantine, the Crusades, Reformation purging, Jim Crow, American Evangelicalism in the world of Trump.

Listen to the rhetoric, the language used for any outside the wall. Listen to the embrace of the word “Nationalist”. Listen to all the words focused on fear, on doing anything to stop those who would bring any change to civilization as we know it. Listen to the dehumanization done in order to justify the bloody-handed exchange, the exchange which gives the government permission to do the dirty work of exclusion and eradication of those who are feared–all for the perceived greater good of protecting the civilization behind the wall. It is compromise with the Empire.

Are we surprised a literal wall was the talking point of the 2016 election, surprised that sending more than 15,000 troops to the border is what we see in the 2018 election cycle? He stokes the fires of fear well, and draws the church into the chains of empire with illusions and promises of power.

I embody many markers of privilege (male, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, educated, owner of my home…not to mention someone with the ability to easily travel and walk Hadrian’s Wall and spend time reflecting and writing). Those who live under systemic injustice and oppression have never had the luxury of being naive about the way the world works. With an intrinsic and daily understanding of oppressive power, the desire to wield worldly power for good must be strong.

For myself, I do see the injustice within every empire, within every power structure, within every grouping of “us”. I also see the history of humanity’s greed and destruction in the chaos that comes when there is no structure to try and bring a check to power. I see both systems and persons in need of transformation, which keeps me from both utopian liberalism and simplistic personal piety as the answers to our human dilemma. I see no ultimate hope in trying to enforce our incomplete picture of justice on the world; to do so, without succumbing to the dangers of power and Empire, does not seem to be within humanity’s grasp. Using power to enforce justice warps and mars the end goal. Can we change the power structures without force? With sadness, I confess I see no hope that those in power will simply hand over the reins to the marginalized, just because we convince them it is the right and just thing to do.

Evidently the winds of Northumbria can dampen the spirits of even this eternal optimist.

I yearn for the needed transformation–transformation of both persons and structures.

I ache for the moral arc of the universe to hurry up already with its bend toward justice.

Though I sometimes push back against the demands of the cross, push back against surrender and sacrifice and the difficulty of laying down my power for the sake of the marginalized…deep down I believe it to be the way of transformation. I believe it can be a bulwark against my temptation to misuse privileged power, to be corrupted by it.

Though I sometimes anguish and rage and question why Jesus told Peter to put away the sword in the garden, why he didn’t call down legions of angels, why he submitted to unjust power instead of use it for good…deep down I recognize and respect the thread of consistency that runs from Christ’s temptations in the desert all the way through to the way he laid down his life.

And ultimately, my embrace of a faith with prophetic imagination to resist both Empire and the tools of Empire is a humble kneeling before the mystery of the Gospel. It is a bedrock of trust that Christian faith at its core is trust in Creator God’s redemptive, resurrection power. It is a recognition that only something beyond the ability of even the best of corporate humanity, only something outside of ourselves, will ultimately bring justice.

I still believe through my aches and questions that it is not within our power or grasp to bring justice and peace. We are powerless to make the waves of justice roll completely. There is a paradox woven into the heart of creation by which evil is overcome by yielding, not by grasping power.

Is there a place for action, for human agency? I can see clear paths to what might be called prophetic witness, acts which bring oppression and injustice and compromise with Empire out of the darkness and into the light. The paths to prophetic action, for me, are more challenging. I see the errors clearly, and the healthy part seems difficult to discern. The error on one side is for inaction to be complicit with injustice. The error on the other is to become a similar oppressor to the one I am trying to resist. I’m not advocating inaction in this embrace of yielding or submission. Rather, I long for the true transformation that I believe can come through following Christ’s example–resisting the temptation to use power for good and discovering a greater resurrection power on the other side.

It is not my place to expect that the oppressed will yield or submit. It is my place to yield myself, and to wait for a Power outside myself to transform me, redeem me, resurrect me. That life-giving, transforming, indwelling power of the resurrected Jesus is what makes my needed transformation possible, and grafts me into connection with others, a redeemed community who are the hands and feet of Jesus in this aching world today. The yielded ones who then are brought close to each other, who are joined with Christ, who experience God’s resurrection power in them to bring transformation to structures and society, incomplete though it may be.

This upside-down, illogical craziness is why it’s called a faith journey. And it is why the church is so easily and insidiously corrupted by the hard logic of Empire.

As I walk the wall, thinking of the ebb and flow of boundaries, recognizing the upside-down, illogical craziness of laying down sword and knocking down stones to understand those on other side…the thought occurs to me that Incarnation and Resurrection have their mysterious link. Out of desire to understand and know us, God laid aside power, went to the other side of the wall, and was vulnerably born into the margins. The Incarnation itself crosses boundaries rather than building walls. The act of drawing near in order to connect with humanity required the risk of laying aside power.

The God who set aside and risked all in order to draw near to humanity, the God who laid aside power, is the same God in whom a greater resurrection power rose up. That resurrection power now ushers in a new way of being for all creation. It is an outside-of-creation power to beat swords into plowshares. To make justice roll down like mighty waters. To bend the moral arc of the universe.

As I try and mold my life after Jesus, I will keep trying to remember the humanity of those on the other side, without discounting the reality of the need for some boundaries and walls for safety. I’ll ask for wisdom, insight, and courage to find humanity in all people as I resist the temptation to make the other “barbarian.” I’ll work to not misuse power as I take actions of prophetic witness. And I will hope for resurrection power to bring about my transformation and the transformation of unjust structures in this world.

Self-reinforcing Cycles

(Content warning: description of disclosure of sexual abuse.)

Her words hung there, between us, naked and vulnerable, the long years of secrecy and darkness seeming to still cling to them, weighing them down. I use hung there as a flawed metaphor; something that is so laden with weight can’t really float between us. No, they made their inevitable journey, sinking deep into the pits of my inside, churning, the bile beginning to rise to my throat as I tried to take in the horrific details of her sexual abuse.

“I had no idea,” were (I think) the words which escaped my mouth. This is nearly twenty years ago, and I was recoiling from something so beyond my experience, so out of my frame of reference at the time. I knew the reputation of the man who did this to her, his “upstanding character” and his “service to the Lord.” I believed her, I believed the weight now turning my intestines topsy-turvy. But the cognitive dissonance as my brain tried to find some handle to hold things together was overwhelming.

She saw my surprise, saw I hadn’t ever had to wrestle with this kind of assault. “My story is common, even if you haven’t heard it,” she said. “We are cautious, you know, about sharing. We test. We take small risks, and when responses tell us it isn’t safe, we clam up.”

And then: “I’ve been testing you for months, to see if I could trust you with this.”

I don’t think I understood all that at the time, but that last line stayed with me. I thought back to other past conversations. Like a dawning revelation, I could see how I had shut down other wounded people, how I had sent the desperate, frightened, wary turtle back into the safety of the shell.

“Oh, he’s a good guy, you must have misunderstood,” I had said when someone told me how someone gave her a scary vibe. “Why did she stay with him,” I had said, as a friend and I spoke about another friend who we knew had been physically abused. Before we were anywhere close to a moment where these friends might have revealed their own darkest pain, I had already failed the test. I had already demonstrated I would question their assessment of the character of another person. I signaled how I would question their choices and imply blame.

Now that I had begun to understand how abuse survivors are so attuned to the words, body language, and tone of others, I started watching what I said all the time, and began changing my responses. I started looking for any “trial balloons” that people were intentionally floating past me, and doing my best to respond in a way that would show I would listen, that they were safe to share with me, that I wanted abuse to stop.

The floodgates opened.

Survivors are everywhere. I hate how common the gut-churning stories are.

Our church faced a lawsuit over a decades-old sexual abuse case. I had to fight my strong desire to defend us, and instead publicly spoke my concern for the plaintiff. In the following months, I ended up hearing the stories of others who also claimed they were abused by the same person. The experience showed me how abuse can be silenced for decades.

If I had defended our reputation, I’m convinced none of those people would have come to me. And abuse survivors need to be heard. Their stories need to be told and brought into the light for healing, for justice, and for the pain to lose some of its power.

I’m trying to share how my understanding of the world I live in has changed, how I saw ways that my actions and words were keeping others from sharing their pain. My perception of reality is now different because abuse survivors have been brave enough to disclose to me, and have helped me learn how to behave and speak in ways that then invite more disclosure. It’s become a self-reinforcing cycle.

And this is my fear on this day where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke her naked, vulnerable words, the years of darkness and secrecy clinging to them and weighing them down, as they (somehow) float there in front of us all. My fear is that we are all in opposite self-reinforcing cycles.

For us who’ve walked this road (ourselves or with others), it all fits with the world we now live in, the one where our eyes have been opened and our hearts are filled at times with despair. This is the world where abuse happens, where perpetrators so often get away with it, where it’s so hard to risk revealing it, where we see with crystal clarity that if you do disclose, the questions and doubts and the character assassination will overwhelm.

For others, it just doesn’t fit the world we live in, because no one we know talks with us about these experiences, because we haven’t heard the fear and careful weighing that goes into disclosing, because all we see are the public personas of abusers that are so often carefully and meticulously managed.

I’m not an abuse survivor, and I’ve been walking in a funk for days. I can’t imagine what it is like for those who are.

Why do I write this?

I think I write to try and help people see that the things said about this particular high profile case are being carefully observed and weighed by abuse survivors around us, the ones who are still silently holding their pain. The questions, the doubts, the excuses are causing more and more survivors to decide never to trust others with their experience. And if your words are such that they see you as unsafe to share with, you will then live in a world where you don’t see up close the abuse in this world. A self-reinforcing cycle.

I think I write to ask you to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that abusers, very often, have public lives that look amazing (which they have carefully and skillfully created and maintained).

I think I write to share my own grief, rage, and despair at how common it is for abuse survivors to keep having to relive their own trauma as others are questioned, doubted, and discredited over their experience.

I think I write so that we all (myself included) will open our eyes to the self-reinforcing cycles we live in, that we all will listen to the experiences of others; listen, more than prepare our defense or our explanation for how that doesn’t make sense.

May we work together to create a world where it is safer for abuse survivors to share their stories, and more importantly, may we work together to create a world where people stop abusing others.

Pursuing the Pursuing God

(Message given at Newberg Emerging Friends Church on July 15, 2018)

Tonight I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love! 

This has been at my core for so long. 

I believe it with all my heart, and it’s how I have oriented my life for decades. God’s real and healing presence is what got me through the last several years, and I am so grateful. I can’t imagine a life for myself where I didn’t orient my life around Christ.

And yet I also know this is not everyone’s experience. It’s not just those of you sitting in this room that are on my mind as I speak tonight. I’m also thinking about many people for whom God’s presence has been distant or absent, for whom the experiences of life and community have broken any ability to speak similar words of faith and trust in God.

I grieve this. I grieve the way church pain has tainted how some see and experience God. And I have been frustrated for a very long time that, while I have had many long years of what are to me clear experiences of the living God, there is the inexplicable truth that some who have tried have not had that same experience.

And of course I, too, have had times where God seemed distant, absent, and frustratingly impotent to fix what I was experiencing. My guess is that’s that’s the case for most of us. It’s not just that some people experience God and some don’t, but rather that our own experience of God…or lack thereof…changes and varies over time.

There are times where the power and overwhelming beauty of the presence of God is tangibly, touchably real; and there are times where we are overwhelmed with disappointment and disillusionment, with apathy and anger, because our experience seems so out of touch from the God we’ve been taught to know. 

I want to experiment with something tonight, and if it totally bombs, oh well.

Take a second to think about the times in your life where it feels like praying is yelling into emptiness, when trying to find comfort from God feels futile. What’s that feel like? What words describe it?

I want to ask you to pull out your phone and use that to participate and give input tonight. My hope is trying a new mechanism will let more people participate than just the ones who are comfortable yelling things out.

We’ll see if this works. Use your browser to go to that website, menti.com, and enter that code. You should then see my question and three boxes to type in words and then submit. You don’t have to fill them all, you can do one or two or three and hit submit, and then you can do it again as many times as you want. What words describe what it feels like when God feels absent? 

As we all submit our words, this will update in real time in a sort of word cloud. I think of this like a community spiritual practice, a group creation of art, that we are working on together. You may even want to look on the screen, and if you see a word that resonates with you, go ahead and enter it yourself and those multiple responses will make the word grow larger. 

Go ahead and keep thinking and participating while I keep talking. It will be an organic part of the teaching tonight that will keep building.

[Here is what we created:]

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 9.28.26 PM

In May I was sitting over there during open worship thinking about this dilemma: if God wants to be known, why do some of us experience God’s presence and some don’t? 

And the Spirit pushed me to wrestle with Cain and Abel, and how their story connects to this idea. Strange, I know! But I hope this strange place can be fertile ground… even if it is the story of the first murder on human record. Turn with me to Genesis 4.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering–fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

(Genesis 4:1-5, TNIV)

It’s the end of verse 4 and beginning of verse 5 that really cause problems for me.

God choosing Abel over Cain is the part that’s difficult for me. 5 or 6 years ago, it got worse when I read Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite scholars, saying that there is no good reason given in the text that shows Abel did anything more deserving than Cain. Wow…does that mean God just arbitrarily chooses one human over another? Maybe Brueggemann, as much as I like him, got this one wrong.

But I found most scholars think the same. In other places in the Old Testament, people offer grain offerings just like Cain and they are accepted by God. He didn’t do anything wrong.

Both brothers are trying to worship and experience God. 

And what they find is that it works for one, and not for the other, and we don’t know why. It’s the same dilemma I have as I look around our world. Why is it that some of us experience the pursuing, healing, justice-seeking love of God, while others…others who are trying just the same…simply don’t?

Let’s try another question, just for fun: Lately, is your experience of God more like Cain, more like Abel…or neither? Pull out your phones and let’s see what we get while I keep talking.

I’ve started trying out a new approach to interpreting the bible, particularly Old Testament passages like this one that really seem to rub against how the wider arc of the bible describes the character of God.

We believe the bible to be inspired by God, and written in the words of human authors, human authors bound by time and cultural blinders. I’ve begun wondering whether statements like this which describe God’s interior thoughts and will, might be more from the human cultural worldview than from the divine inspiration part. What if the Israelites assigned motives to God in the text that really aren’t accurate to who God is?

This, for instance, is how I am able to stomach the genocide that takes place with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. That horrible action did happen, but perhaps the Israelites chose that path for themselves out of fear, and then assigned the command to God as a way to justify it. The bible still is reliable and helpful for how humans and God interact in the world, but maybe the authors didn’t always fully understand God’s inner thoughts. Maybe they even projected their own stuff on God.

If we try this out here in Genesis 4, how does it all play out?

What if the human author was a bit presumptuous in saying God looked in favor on Abel and not in favor on Cain? What if we just wrestle with the experience here? Two people do their best to experience God, and it works out well for one, while the other is left empty and feeling God’s absence.

That opens up some intriguing possibilities for us. Before Cain was the murderer, Cain was someone who tried to experience God and came up empty. Like some of us. Like the tension I’m wrestling with as I look at our community and the world.

How does the rest of the story play out if we try this way of looking at it? Let’s keep going.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’

(Genesis 4:6-7, TNIV)

Now God shows up directly!

Whatever happened with the sacrifice, whatever didn’t get through to Cain…now we have God interacting with Cain in a very direct way. The one who felt God’s absence experienced a more direct encounter. God pursues Cain and offers a clear choice to him. 

I think there were times earlier in my life where I read these verses in a way that sounded like this: “Why are you angry Cain? If you had done what was right, wouldn’t I have accepted your offering?” I think I read it that way because, if God really did choose Abel over Cain, if the author was right about God’s internal thinking, then my sense of justice requires that Cain must have done something wrong.

But look at what it actually says. It’s not past tense. In fact, it’s more future. It’s an intervention, an option, a truth about what can be ahead for Cain even after the encounter with the sacrifice didn’t go as Cain wished.

God shows up with a promise, and a warning. The promise is that even now, even though your attempt to engage me has felt empty to you, I still want to walk with you. The warning is, these times of spiritual struggle are ripe times for us to be pulled to unhealthy and even evil things.

Even in this story, I see the same God I described earlier…

…which lets me stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love! 

I don’t know why Cain’s worship experience didn’t go well.

Nor do I know why some seem to experience God’s grace and presence in all kinds of ways while others feel like their prayers bounce back off the ceiling. But I do believe in this God, who shows up to an angry, downcast, frustrated Cain and says: Do what’s right and I’m there. Evil things pull at you, want to pull you away from me, but you can fight it and find me. I’m not giving up on you.

But of course Cain doesn’t take God’s advice.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’

Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
But the LORD said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

(Genesis 4:8-15, TNIV)

Here is a perfect example of the injustice in the world that makes our hearts ache. Cain has made the horrible choice and committed the injustice. And still God pursues him. God identifies first with the one who suffered injustice (“Where is your brother Abel?”). But God is still pursuing Cain, God even protects Cain when the consequences feel too great. God’s mark of protection rests on Cain, despite his choices, despite what Cain has done. 

Here is the pursuing God, despite injustice, despite what we’ve done!

Even in the story of the first murder, even in horror, even in pain and broken family and community, we find God pursuing, guiding, and even protecting people who give in to the sin and evil “crouching at their door.”

Sometimes it has felt to me that the experiences we have gone through as a community in the last few years have given only the Abel and Cain options. Either people are unjustly destroyed despite their faithfulness, like Abel; or people feel God’s absence and stop pursuing God, and find themselves like Cain, struggling in a far and distant country.

But I think there are other paths to walk and to live besides these two extremes. Because God is always there, because God pursues us, because God wants to live in relationship with us no matter what happens…I still choose to respond as faithfully as I can to this pursuing God.

As clearly as I can say it, I don’t want to shame those who are disillusioned and tired and unable to engage with God or community.

I don’t want to put “shoulds” upon you.

And, I also don’t want to fail to share my own commitment to take actions to pursue God through the struggle of the past few years. I don’t want to fail to share the reward it has brought to my life.

I have found, through God’s grace dropped in my lap; through discipline, through trial and error…I have found a different, more raw, more earthy faith. In my failure and my brokenness I have found the real presence of this living, pursuing, healing, justice-seeking God. And it has sustained me and remade me.

When I hear God’s words to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” I no longer hear them as condemnation, as expectation, as something I must live up to or find God’s rejection. I hear them as God’s promise of God’s pursuing nature that will not let me go. I hear them as encouragement to turn to God in and through my struggle and pain, in and through the times of feeling God is absent, and find a resource of strength.

I made choices in the most challenging moments of the last few years to stop and to pray and to pour out my anguish and fear to God.

I made choices to ask the Spirit to empower me to act in ways I knew Jesus taught–to repay evil with kindness, to forgive as I have been forgiven. I made choices to try and do what is right…not out of fear of being rejected, but because I so desperately needed the experience of God’s promised presence.

I keep reading the bible, even when my experiences aren’t matching what I am reading. I keep naming my desires and my grief to God. Recently I have searched for, prayed, and mediated on prayers from the ancient church as a practice of spiritual help for myself. I keep doing what I can to pursue this God who I believe pursues me.

And for me…as I step back and I remember, I realize that God’s Spirit has been an ever-present help in time of need. I realize that for me, the Jesus I read about in the bible matches what I experience of God today. I realize that in an inseparable way, God’s pursuit of me and MY actions to seek and follow Christ have woven together into a bedrock of strength and peace that is beyond my efforts, beyond my experiences.

As I see the pain that is in our community and our world–some from the church stuff, and of course all kinds of things outside of it–my heart still breaks and my eyes still well with tears. But more than ever before, I still long with all my heart for everyone to find Christ as a bedrock of strength and peace, too. I pray for it and work for it.

This is why, tonight…

I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love!

May this God be your bedrock and strength too. May it begin right now in our time of open worship.

Risking Community

I still grieve over the pain so many feel after years of church turmoil. Uprooted, displaced, hopes raised and then dashed, confused, unsure, frustrated, angry, lost, lonely, questioning, doubting, sad, disillusioned, powerless, let down…and grieving. 

I’ve wrestled with whether or not to write this. I was in leadership and part of what has created this landscape. But that’s also a big part of why I care. There are so many I love who haven’t found community because they still see a lack of safety for the marginalized. There are ones I love at NEFC. There are ones I love at NFC. There are ones I love who don’t have any sense of a community and may think no one even misses them or notices them. I hold so many of your faces up to Jesus on a regular basis because so many of you are in my mind and heart. 

Part of being in community, part of creating a faith community, is to share our journeys. I’m trying to continue to share some of mine, and I hope others will share some of theirs.

Even while I was pastor of one of the most institutional of institutional churches for 15 years, I was very conflicted about institutions. I spent the first 4 years genuinely confused why I ended up there, when my mind, heart, and spirit were asking so many questions. And then, I spent almost a decade watching the benefits of it all for my kids, as so many others spoke into their lives and shaped their own faith. I came to an uneasy acceptance of institutions and their benefits alongside all their pitfalls and dangers. 

Community sounds so much better than an institution. But practically, they are so intertwined. Communities become institutions and institutions create communities, and there is intentionality and unintentionality going both directions. I don’t know how to separate them except in the theoretical sense. Individuals create systems, and systems shape individuals, and again some of it is intentional and some is unintentional, some is for the better, some is for the worse. Human history tells us we cannot be guaranteed to only do things for the better. God help us all, and I mean that as a very literal prayer.

I’ve experienced and wrestled and learned a lot over the last year. I am so grateful that Jesus has been so tangibly real to me that I have never once thought of chucking my faith. I’d be glad to talk about those experiences with anyone. 

For months last summer, I had no regular faith community. I visited communities, but it was always clear I was not a part. I ached to be with people. Even with all my anger and hurt over institutional junk and people who had hurt, it was worse to be alone. I had to do (and I am still doing) so much work to name my grief, my hurts, my guilt, my fear, my desire to hurt, my defensiveness, my disappointment that God wasn’t guiding me as clearly as others. I did (and am still doing) this work in therapy, journalling, praying, crying, reading, and over lunches or coffee with safe people. Bringing this stuff to God has led me to keep trying to be in community with others, and to let it be what it is, instead of what it used to be, or what I wish it would be.

When I look around, there is still so much hurt that needs to be processed. There are still real differences in philosophy about how to build community. Some see how much needs to radically change so that those who have been marginalized can truly be safe and have agency, and so want to go slowly to build it correctly. Some see the damage having no community can bring, and want to do what they can to build something as safely as possible. I hate that these differences are still causing damage to our relationships and our communities. I don’t have a solution.

For myself, I’m choosing to still risk trying community, imperfect and dangerous and full of potential hurt as it is. 

I’m trying to regularly practice spiritual disciplines to give the Spirit every possible chance to call me to repentance, to give me love for others that I don’t have in myself, to have God’s love move through me outward. 

I’m trying to take actions that are consistent with what Jesus did, recognizing that my actions and my use of my power and privilege not only affect others, they shape who I am becoming. 

Because I’ve watched others disappoint me, because I’ve seen my own mistakes, I continue to remind myself I might be wrong and that even my desire for justice can lead me to harmful actions. I believe the way forward is to cultivate submission to Jesus through active testing of my leadings (in other words, not sitting passively, and not acting impulsively). 

I’m trying to risk reaching out to others, even as I fear that others won’t give what I need. I’m good at self-centered fears.

And I keep naming and releasing my hurt, my guilt, my frustration, etc. etc., asking God to take our ashes and make them beautiful.

The Shape and Smell of Grace

I have a new frame, a new construct, a new living memory for what grace is.

Which is extraordinary, because grace is such a cornerstone concept for people of faith. Grace is God’s orientation, relation. Grace is God’s approach to us and with us. Grace is the heart and the gift and the offering, so profound that in some Christian traditions it takes on a sort of subjecthood, a personhood, an existence. Some warp it into a perimeter, a limited space for a limited few. But grace, I believe, is relationship and community and wonder and safety and wide open space.

And grace is profoundly transformative.

Growing up, I was so often given a specific definition of grace that hearing the word in my mind immediately brings the response: unmerited favor.

God’s grace is favor. It is goodness, maybe even preferential goodness, to me. On the dangerous side is the way that slant of the word can slide toward my superiority, my worthiness over and above and against some other person. On the miraculous side, grace can somehow actually create worth in its recipient, can actually confer and beget and birth and call forth value in me. In you.

Whoa.

That “favor” does come with the modifier “unmerited”. I don’t merit it. I don’t deserve it. I don’t do anything to justify its existence in me. And here there are precipices on (at least) two sides. On one we plummet down a crevasse of self-incrimination and self-punishment, reminding ourselves always that we don’t deserve, we aren’t enough. This fights the very power of the word it is modifying. And on the other side is this strange abyss where we trick others and ourselves into a life of humble-brags, where we try to demonstrate by certain social-spiritual behaviors that clearly we must possess this grace, because see, look what I’m doing. And we thereby work hard to earn the unearned-ness.

Sigh.

When Jesus speaks grace into existence, it often carries a lot of seeking, striving, working. But the foundational pivot that we often slip to the wrong side is that Jesus always speaks of grace as God’s striving, not ours. Grace is the woman frantically sweeping her home to find the lost coin, the shepherd clawing through thorny vines to find that one wandering lamb, the elderly, broken-hearted parent endlessly scanning the road for any sign of the wandering child’s return. Grace is God seeking us out in order to shower love upon us. Grace is found-ness. And grace seems to call forth a community’s celebration when the coin is found or the child returns or the lamb is rescued. Which means grace is personal, and grace is communal. Grace is God’s nature and character, and so it’s one of the things we can expect to find the Spirit replicating in us, we God-bearers, we imitators of Christ.


I’ve lived a long season of Lent. A journey of release, of giving up, of grieving what has been lost. It’s important work, necessary work.

Last May, in the heart of the slog, our kids and our people surprised us with a scavenger hunt and a party and a gift so overwhelming, so over the top, that I just kept shaking my head and then burying it in my hands and my lap. “We can’t take this. We can’t take this.” Over and over those words went through my head, as I couldn’t wrap my mind around a gift of love that was such a magnitude of offering beyond anything deserved.

Truly, profoundly “unmerited favor.”

People I love sacrificed and gave so that Elaine and I could go to New Zealand. And for months after the party, I couldn’t get myself to think or plan or dream about the trip. I was blocked. Stuck. I could not walk into that perimeter. I finished serving as pastor and everything I had stuffed, everything that was lost, everything that had hurt…it became the entire space I inhabited. Loss of what had been shut out what could be. What was lacking in my life overwhelmed the good that was there.

I had to do that work. Oh let’s be real, I’m still doing that work of naming and releasing what I wish was still here day in and day out. But as Elaine and I ticked off the days and crept closer and closer to boarding the plane for our adventure, I talked candidly about wanting to shift. Wanting to move toward thankfulness, toward gratefulness for what is. To search and to find…favor. To find the grace I believed (with knuckles white with straining!) had to be there.


It was the morning of our second full day in New Zealand. Elaine was driving us through the heart of the South Island. We wound our way out of Christchurch, out of industrial zones, out of farmland and vineyards. We started climbing, curving our way into wilderness and light and snow-dusted peaks rising out of azure water. And I laughed. I cried. I thought of more than a hundred people at home who literally chose to take money they earned and hand it to us so that we could smell this, see this.

The next day we sweated our way on foot, past skittish sheep, up switchback trails to stand on Isthmus Peak. I spoke as many of the names of people that I could remember, spoke them out loud as the wind buffeted us at the top. Thank you Rachelle and Stephanie and Natalie and Hayley and Aubrey, thank you Michelle and Alan and Steve and Diane and Elizabeth and Steve, thank you Lisby and Jon and Di and Bruce and Carol and David… I spoke for far longer and with far more names than I’ve written (so yikes don’t be offended if I left you out here; I know how many and I have gone through the list since I’ve been home and I have named you ALL).

It was like breathing in grace. Wading in grace. Drinking and sleeping and eating in grace.

I mean, I lived a 36 year old dream when I landed a six pound native brown trout on a dry fly. My shoulder literally ached with the strength of that beast, and the throbbing pain was grace. How do you open your mind and heart enough to comprehend people taking the dream of a lonely 13 year old moping in a school library, and then giving that dream to the almost 50 year old man he became? How do you accept and integrate that special and unique and wondrous expression of love?

As overwhelmed as I was by the surprise in May, this was more. We inhabited the space of grace, and it has transformed me.


We’re back in our normal (scratch that, our new normal) world. I got sicker than sick for weeks after we returned. I’ve still had my moments of crying and grieving and questioning and frustration.

But.

I breathe grace.

I choose to name out loud the gifts of this new normal life.

I choose to write or speak a prayer of thanks each day.

I celebrate the Giver and givers of good gifts, my God and my community.

And my thankfulness to Giver and givers is so difficult to put into words. (This is me trying.)

Thank you for giving me a living memory where we inhabited grace.

Christmas Eve in New Zealand

We trickled out of our hostels and hotels, we travelers from far-flung spaces, winding our way by twos and threes and sixes to tiny St. James Anglican Church. It wasn’t until Elaine and I reached the quiet one lane highway that I realized we weren’t going to be the only out of place visitors in the congregation on Christmas Eve, far from home.

In truth, there were only two members of St. James there. As the priest introduced herself, she confessed that she, too, was a visitor–from another part of New Zealand, here with her husband and son to gather us in worship with nine lessons from scripture, an Advent Candle, and song.

Looking at it one way, we all botched it. The priest’s iPad quit sending out sound, though it had worked half an hour before. When it did finally work, the recorded pianist couldn’t keep a steady time; we struggled to find our way as we sang, one time finding ourselves a whole bar behind. We lit the candles out of order. At one point, a man in his twenties in the second row on the left had to put his head down and cover his mouth to keep from laughing. Looking at it one way, our visiting congregation with the visiting priest performed horribly.

And yet…

She asked for volunteers to read God’s redemption story, nine passages that painted a wide ranging biblical arc. So we heard the Good News in a New Zealand accent; and an American, a British, an Irish, and a vaguely continental European accent. We watched a child from Kuala Lumpur light one of the Advent candles, and it was the Canadian young man from the second row who saved Christmas by restoring the iPad’s sound.

We became a community. Not a deep one. Not a lasting one. But we were gathered.

And for so many reasons…because for the first time in years I wasn’t leading the Christmas Eve service, because on one level it was so hilariously awful, because it was so wrong and weird to be apart from our kids and our people, because so much has withered and not stood the test over the last few years…for so many reasons I saw the heart of it all again, anew.

We became a community because we welcomed Jesus, God-come-near. From almost every continent, we vagabonds sat in a small chapel in New Zealand, gathered to honor and worship a baby born two thousand years ago in oppressed and impoverished Palestine. Christian community truly is God-instigated, not human-created.

We try to create it.

We try to make it.

We often perform it better than we rag-tag wanderers did tonight.

But we botch it. We get full of ourselves, we make it about ourselves, we build our tiny empires and identities. We exclude when we mean to include, we dig in our heels when patience is called for, we wound our own because they didn’t get it quite right enough. We are infinitely creative in our failure, and yet we keep trying.

True community, the kind our souls were created for, comes with the invitation to come. Come to the One who has drawn near, to the Word made flesh. We somehow found ourselves in a chapel full of hope, though wrapped in our human frailty and failure. We came and we found a divine home where none of us (well, only two of us) lived and belonged.

Come.

“O come, let us adore him.”

Once again, it is Jesus that I keep coming back to in this year of unsettled, magnitude ten earth-shaking. I can’t leave him. And I keep finding him, or being found, or something. Tonight we found him, or were found by him, or something. We were gathered, we found community, not because of the words we sang or the service we tried to create. We were made a community by the One we believe took on flesh for our salvation.

“O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.”