Word of the Week

How many times have you heard advice like: "Don't dwell in the past. Don't look too much to the future. Just enjoy the ride where you are?"

These are words that wise ones like to offer us, especially if we find ourselves in a life funk.

We're told that the present moment is all we have! Live today to the full! Carpe Diem. For even Jesus advised to "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself" (Matthew 6:34).

Once a mentor told me if I couldn't mediate with my eyes open wherever I was then, I'd completely lost touch with a sense of self.

So with all of this true, looking forward to something in the future is just heretical talk. Setting your eyes on something that will bring you pleasure in the future is called not really living. Anticipation is a bad word.

b683e0b12587630cde812b1c634ec26fYet, today, in this blog post, I want to object.

As much as I agree with "wherever you are be fully there" talk . . .

I don't know where my mental state would be without the gift of anticipation.

For to have my calendar full of opportunities to experience joy with people I love, there's really nothing better than that! It's abundant living.  It's life on the edge of blooming. What beauty!

And as Albert Camus once said: “...We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.”

I know I'm fully alive when I'm anticipating something, I'm claiming my place in the land of what it means to be a human being.  Anticipation is giving feet to the prayer: "The best is yet to be."

Or in other words, anticipation is a reason to get out of bed and do not only things with daily deadlines but to prepare for what might come later. People who are depressed can't do this. But those with hope for the future can!

Recently, I found myself re-reading a part of the Henri Nowuen classic The Wounded Healer and found myself captured by this quote. I wrote it down and came back to it often for several weeks:

"Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move way from the safe place and enter the unknown and fearful territory."

I love these words because it's another way to speak of anticipation. If we want to be a hope-filled people, then none of us can seek to preserve, defend and protect what we have. Nope!  Our calling is to move toward the unknown.

It's a scary place to be, though. Living life with anticipation (especially if you've known the deep pains of disappointment) is placing your heart on the table. It's saying again, "This is important to me." Or "You are important to me."

Anticipation's excitement does not look back! And while the knowns of the past or present feel safer, anticipation helps you in the words of Mary Oliver to "leave some room in your heart for the unimaginable."

Anticipation holds our hand as we lean toward what is not yet.

If you want to know where my heart is these days, I have one word for you. It's anticipation. It's the sweetness of believing good is on its way though I have no idea what it will look like or when it will come.

The anticipation I have is so sweet I can taste it though I'm still here in the moment called today.

What are you looking forward to? After all, as Christians, we are an Easter people. Resurrection is always on its way even as we are in Lent.

When I started seventh grade, I was in club that asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. We were told to write our answers down on a piece of paper and keep it somewhere where we'd see it again in several years.

I recently found it again all these years later and I bet you'll be surprised as to what it said. . . .

I wanted to be a lawyer.

Who knew where that came from? Other than maybe I saw my future in leadership and study and being a lawyer was all I knew that women could do. 

I also wanted to be married, have lots of kids and live in a place near palm trees.

In some ways life has turned out like I hoped and in other ways it simply has not.

But isn't this the way  life is for all of us?

Who really became what they'd thought they'd be when they were 7, 12 or 17?

We can set out at the beginning of our life to be or do something in particular only to find ourselves 15, 20 or 30 years later holding something different.

Personally, I've always fought against this norm. When I set my mind out to do something, I really want to follow through with it even if the goal is not in my best interest.

But lately I've been thinking about the folly of all of this. Not that it is wasted energy to make plans or to have a plan. Not that we shouldn't strive toward fixing big problems.

Yet, the stupid part is how much mental, emotional and spiritual energy we all seem to exert toward PARTICULAR plans.

We wrap our heads around some vision for our lives and then want to settle for nothing less even if our plans make us miserable.

I was sitting with a group of girlfriends over lunch recently and the transcript of the conversation would lead a bystander to believe that each one around the table was in charge of their own lives. Or at least each had the ability to control their life circumstances based on their intellect, determination and perseverance. Each made these declarative statements:

I'll be pregnant in a year.

I'll have a new job in a city closer to family in six months.

I'll be starting my doctorate in the fall.

While all of these things were beautiful and wonderful goals, I couldn't help but think the entire time, what hubris we human beings are capable of!

There is NO way to guarantee that anything we want to happen in our lives will.

If you asked me 10 years ago if this is where my life would land me in 2014, I would have shook my head. I am most certainly not living the life I planned to live. In many ways my life is so much better than I ever imagined. And in other ways it is much worse.

So, this is my life motto: goodbye 5, 10 or 15 life plans. I can hardly predict or plan what is going to happen in the next 6 months! (Much less even a year in advance) so why obsess over what is to come? 

And while this way of living goes against every bit of my type A nature, I am learning to accept it. This season of life has forced me to accept it in this strange land. I must make peace with it.

Because really, who am I? Just a grain of sand in the larger universe. I believe in a Creator that is complete mystery. Who am I really to know what I want or I need? Who am I to ever predict what comes next?

All I know to do is wake up every morning and keep living, hoping that as I do-- that the particular path for what is next becomes clear. And when in doubt, I also go back to this my favorite prayer by Thomas Merton. Because really in the end, life is not about us anyway.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Today I'm hoping for you as I'm hoping for me that in due time, all will be well. All matter of things shall be well.

God’s Dreams for Us
Genesis 28: 10-19, Ephesians 2:14-21
Watonga Indian Baptist Church
Watonga, OK

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were confused, without direction or without prospects on the horizon for a better future?

Maybe such was a time in your life when you lost a job, fell into a conflict with a family member, or even didn’t know where your next meal came from?

Maybe it was a time when a beloved family member died? Or when one of your children was terribly sick?

Or maybe even when someone sought to speak authoritatively to you without any concern for your best interest?

I bet we could all say yes to this question—that sometime in our life, if not right now we’ve reached moments when all we wanted to do was sit in the floor and cry or just run away from everything familiar to us or even drown our sorrows in too much sleep or alcohol—because life has just felt that bad.

God, it has seemed has not been present in our lives in a way that speaks to our heart. We feel alone, abandoned, and are wandering aimlessly through our days.

So with all of this true, I tell you, you’ll like the main character in our Old Testament story today: Jacob. Jacob as we meet him in Genesis 28, is not the exalted son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, the great patriarchs of the people of Israel. He’s not in a place of greatness simply because of who his family is or because he got a huge inheritance of wealth.

No, rather, we find Jacob down and out. We find that he’s was forced to leave his land, his home, his family and we find him as verse 11 tells us in “no particular place.”

We find that Jacob is no the run without real plans for the future, alone, and without any creature comfort for protection.

In fact, if we read earlier in the story, we know that Jacob is on the hit list of his brother Esau. After Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, tricked her husband into giving Jacob, her younger son the blessing usually reserved for the oldest son, Jacob’s brother Esau is angry.

Esau says he wants Jacob dead. Rebekah, being the smart woman that she is (I know like so many of the women in this room this morning) creates a plan whereby Jacob’s father thinks it is in the best interest of Jacob to send him away for a while. (The excuse being that he needed to find a wife in the region of the country where Rebekah’s people are from).

So, with father Isaac on board with the “go find a wife in another region” plan, Jacob is sent away. No one asked Jacob if he wanted to go. He was told to go.

But, while some young adults might have loved this plan, we don’t get the idea from Jacob that he’s too excited about it. For, we know he’s never been away from home before. He’s never been on a route to the destination of Hebron before. This journey out into the great unknown was full of a lot of firsts.

But, even though from the outside this just seems like a secular story about a family drama—God is still present.

God had not forgotten the promise He’d made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.

God had not forgotten about Jacob.

God had not forgotten his love for Jacob.

So, as Jacob takes shelter for the night in what I can imagine was an open field (not much shelter really at all) laying his head on a rock for a pillow, scripture tells us that God speaks to him.

Not as God had done before through a voice or through the presence of messengers, but through a dream.

And in this dream, scripture tells us that Jacob sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching toward heaven.

As an aside it’s this juncture in scripture is where the song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” comes from. Anyone ever sang or heard of this song before? I had to look up the words—all I knew was the first line. But if you look them us too, beware: it really has nothing to do with this story.

But it wasn’t really a ladder Jacob sees. More like a ramp. For a popular part of the religious culture of Jacob’s time was the idea of ziggurats—artificial mountains built as shrines, shrines that connected things of on the earth to higher things of heaven.

We aren’t told that Jacob gets access to heaven on this ramp. Instead it serves as a sign that God comes to dwell with Jacob—to be with him where he was. Right there in the middle of nowhere.

It was an image of God saying to Jacob—“Look, you are not alone. I am with you, even here in this remote place.”

But even more than this, I believe, God is inviting Jacob to see the world as God views it, to dream alongside God.

In verse 13, my Bible reads—“there above it (meaning the ladder) stood the Lord” but many translations of this verse actually read, “There beside him.” I really want to lean into the second interpretation—that as God begins to speak directly to Jacob he is not standing over him, but standing beside him—coming close to his heart.

And saying these words: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out like the west and the east, to the north and to the south. All people on earth will be blessed.”

What powerful words! Not only was God saying to Jacob in his moment of crisis: “I see you!” but God was also making unconditional promises to him about the future of his people.

“I’m going to bless you,” God says, “No matter what. No matter how much you screw up. No matter how far you stray from me. No matter how people treat you. Or how lost you feel. I’m going to bless you.”

It was an invitation for Jacob to come and see the world as God already saw it—full of possibility, full of promise, full of hope, even when the circumstances of Jacob’s life seemed like nothing good could possibility come from them.

This past week, Kevin, my husband and I spent several days meeting with, assisting with feeding programs and shoe distributions for children in Guatemala. All of this was part of Kevin’s work for an organization based out of Oklahoma City called Feed The Children and I was just along for the ride.

One of my favorite communities we visited was in the region of Guatemala known as San Antonio Polopa among a traditional Mayan culture. Though the community struggles with having enough provisions of food and clean water and proper supplies for their children to go to school with and had every reason to shun us as “outsiders” Kevin and I, along with the rest of the team from Feed The Children were overwhelmed by the kind welcome we received. I even got a Mayan makeover while I was there, with traditional dress given to me and put on me (I can show you pictures after the service if you are interested).

But, as Kevin spoke to this group before we all ate together, as he had done many times before with different groups, he said something that struck me (especially as I had this passage of scripture on my mind). Kevin told the group of mothers and children gathered around us: “We are here today to stand in solidarity with you. Though we come from a different country, a different culture and from a different background, there is one thing we hold in common. And that is all parents want the same thing for their children. All parents want a better life for their children than they had themselves.”

And the Mayan mothers seemed to agree, as maybe the mothers in this room here in Watonga agree too. It’s only natural as Parents to dream big for your children.

You want your children to grow up and succeed at whatever they do—having better days than you ever experienced, making more money than you ever did, and living in a more comfortable living space than you. It’s part of what makes us human, to have this desire.

But, what about God, have you ever thought about what God dreams for you?

If we say that God is our Heavenly Father or Heavenly Mother . . . if we believe that God in heaven is the great Parent of us all, then what are God’s dreams for us? When God thinks about our future, what comes to God’s mind?

Taking our cues from Jacob this morning, we see that there are no limits to what God has planned for our future.

Consider again with me the language of verse 14 of Genesis chapter 28.

The LORD said to Jacob, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”

Being called “dust” doesn’t sound too bad does it? Dust is everywhere. Dust is a part of all places. Dust is the very essence of life.

But, there’s more. One Biblical commentator on this passage calls our attention to the fact that the original Hebrew word for dust was not just an generic word for dust, rather it was more like the English word “topsoil.”

Topsoil, as we know from our gardening is the best kind of soil. It’s the soil that is full of the nutrients. It’s the soil that ensures the crops’ success. It’s the soil full of the rich ingredients that the plants need within them to help them grow strong and tall. And with out the topsoil our hopes of a rich harvest are ruined.

Thus, God is telling Jacob in speaking of topsoil: “I have a dream for you. My dream is not just that you’ll have a good home. Or, that you’ll have kids one day of your own. Or that happiness will find you more than sadness does. But, rather, my dream is that you’ll be a life-restoring, life-giving pillar wherever you go. That your community will be blessed because of YOU bringing MY presence to it., the riches gift of all.”

I believe this is exactly what the apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to the church at Ephesus about God’s dreams for their lives. Saying that he prays regularly for the Ephesians, “That Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith. And [Paul] prays that [they] being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with the saints, to grasp how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

Paul wants them to know that God’s dreams for the people of this world are in fact so big that we could not even wrap our minds around them if we tried. Why? Because we serve a God, as Paul writes that is “able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask for or imagine.”

Unimaginable dreams—that’s bigger than any of us know how to speak about!

I tell you today that is hard to keep dreaming like this. It’s hard to dream at all sometimes. It’s hard to dream the more that life has beaten us down, shredded our attempted contributions to pieces. It’s hard to dream when all we want to do is throw up our hands in disbelief of the suffering that has found us in this life.

But we are called to keep dreaming, nonetheless.

The poet Langston Hughes that I like very much says this about dreams: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is broken winged bird that can’t fly.”

As people of faith, as people who are in relationship with the God of all living things, we can’t give up hope. We can’t give up dreaming. We have to allow room in our hearts to received God’s unexpected surprises of dreams in our sleep, of visions in the daytime, of words of instruction from wise ones in our community.

I am so glad I serve a God who has a plan for me, along with every living creature on this earth.

I’m so glad I serve a God who wants a brighter future not only for the children but for all of us older ones as well.

I’m so glad I serve a God who helps give me vision when I feel lost, alone or without the courage to keep dreaming anew.

I’m so glad God’s dream for all of us flow out of great love-- love that is wider and longer and higher and deeper than I could ever conceive on my own.

Let’s us pledge together again on this day to invite the power of the Holy to teach us to dream anew.

Let’s dream together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dream together as children of father Jacob.

Let us on this special day of family celebration thank God that God’s dream for us our families are not over. But with God with us, the best is yet to be!


How to Wreck Your Life Series
Live in the Past . . . Or in the Future
Luke 4:14-21 with Isaiah 43:16-21
Guest Preacher at Idylwood Presbyterian Church, Falls Church, VA

When your pastor, MaryAnn asked me several weeks ago to share this time of worship with you this morning, I was delighted for the opportunity knowing that it would be the first time I was asked to preach outside of the tenure I just completed as pastor at a Baptist church very similar to Idylwood just down the road in Reston. And, as she told me more about your winter worship series, “How to Wreck Your Life”—your focused time of study about the ways in which we all contribute to our own life failures, MaryAnn asked if I’d be interested in preaching along these lines, being a part of the series.

Of course, I said. I love series preaching and did such at my former congregation regularly. And was often on the other end of things asking guest preachers I invited into join in series I’d planned too. So, it seemed right that your pastor would ask the same of me (karma of course). And so our conversation together today on the topic of “Live in the Past . . . Or in the Future” began.

past-present-future-smallsign1At first I thought, I had it easy (Thanks, MaryAnn)—I knew exactly what the direction of this particular mistake would be in this sermon. It’s simple. We all have our heads too stuck in the past and need to move on to the future! God tells us God is doing a NEW thing.

But the more I pondered it, the more I realized “Live in the Past . . . or in the Future” was much more complex than it seemed at first look. Such a way we wreck our lives is not just about the error of looking behind too much—you know, the behavior of being stuck in a rut, unwilling to move on toward the new. But, it’s ALSO about being so consumed with the future that we deign our past exist. You’ve all heard the famous George Santayana quote, “Those go cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’ve all had times in our lives when we just don’t want to deal with our past failures seeking to hit the fast forward button in our hearts as quickly as possible.

And, so I believe these two things are true: we have trouble with being stuck in the past. We have trouble being stuck in the future.

Therefore, I think today’s theme truly speaks to our human struggle of not being able to tune our brain to the present. We go and go and do at such a pace that we’re never really in the moment. In any given week, more often than not, our spirit gets lost in never-never land while our body keeps going through the rote motions on earth.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers is Anthony De Mello though he’s been deceased since 1987. De Mello, a Jesuit priest born in India, lectured all over the world about the importance of waking up to life and seeing it just as it truly is. His most famous text, Awareness: the Perils and Opportunities of Reality is a book I’ve recently picked up and read very slowly. It’s a rich text in which he writes, “The most difficult thing in the world is to listen, to see. We don’t want to see . . . We don’t want to look.” (28).

He goes on to talk about how our lack of awareness in the here and now costs us peace and contentment, but most of all blessings that we already have and just can’t see! We wreck our life by deigning ourselves engagement with relationships, joy and hope we currently have.

In the gospel lesson for this morning, taken from Luke 4, we find Jesus in a situation full of memories from the past and foreshadowing what was to come—but ultimately a situation that asked him to stay present in the moment, fully engaged.

And this is the story: Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth after being away in the desert for 40 days of temptation. It probably felt good for him to be “home” back in his normal routine. Clues in the text such as the phrase “as was his custom” help us know that going to temple was a commonplace activity for Jesus; he was no high holy holiday kind of Jew.

And it just so happened that on this day it was his turn to read the scripture before those gathered, just like Debbie did for us a few moments ago. And as the scroll was handed to him he read the words from the prophet Isaiah that scholars believe are a combination of two particular passages: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

These were powerful words of promise of course—words that the listeners in the congregation most certainly would have thought were a part of a Messianic prophecy—a divine deliverance of the nation of Israel, a year of jubilee, a righteous mission given by God for the people to carry out together with the chosen one.

And after Jesus finished, he could have sat down and gone about his business of thinking about what he was going to have for lunch later on (which I know none of you are thinking about as I speak right now).

Jesus could have thought about all the times he’d heard this particular lection read as a child—what he’d heard taught by former teachers on the Isaiah prophecy.

Jesus most certainly could have sat down patted his dad on the leg, looked over at his mom, been thinking about what kind of wine was going to be served at the next Sabbath meal at his place.

Most of all, Jesus could have easily allowed this to be just one more day in the life. He could have easily and speedily moved on to naming this as a lovely to above average day of spending time at home again with family and friends.

Or, he could be present. He could be aware. He could live into this moment, the practice of seeing and hearing. He could abide in this unique opportunity to live into mission for his life.

We’re on the edge of our seat with Jesus here about what will come next. We know how it feels. It takes courage to listen to that voice deep within that says, “This is my way, walk in it” that we as Christians name as the Holy Spirit. It takes a lot of bravery to abandon the could-a, should-a and woulds-a’s in our head when we get that nudge to live with freedom. It takes guts we know to live in this boldness.

We see Jesus modeling for us this brave new way as he speaks when all of the eyes of the synagogue were on him. In verse 21 he stands up (and I can just hear a gasp going through the crowd) and says this bold confession of faith, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Or in other words, “I am this Messiah. This is my mission. God has sent me to proclaim the good news.”

Whoa! For these would be the words that would ruin this perfectly tame Sabbath day, that would sent a riot through the crowd, that would run Jesus out of town (almost killing him in the process), and would forever shape the intensity of what Jesus’ future would look like.

I guess you could say by some standards of what it means to “wreck one’s life,” Jesus certainly messed up big time here!

No longer uncover as just Joseph’s boy.

No longer able to come back home without fear and hang out with his brothers and sisters like everything was alright.

No longer able to fly below the radar as if that “You are my son in whom I’m well pleased” event at the Jordan River baptism was somehow a fluke.

And most of all no longer able to deign that this ministry he was undertaking with bold confessions like this would one day get him killed one day sooner than later.

But, Jesus, you see, in awareness knew he needed to speak. He needed to teach. He needed to provide discernment to a group of people lost in the messes of their own making. He needed to be that voice that brought God’s hope to a weary worn crowd. In these 9 words, Jesus gives an inaugural address like none other. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus, I believe showed us how to not wreck our lives by living in the present. Something that staying in his head about the past or consumed with plotting the future could never do. He proclaimed good news.

This week, while preparing for this Sunday I read on your church website: “Idylwood Presbyterian Church is a welcoming Christian congregation. Thankful for God’s grace and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we aspire to demonstrate the inclusive and expansive love of Jesus Christ to neighbors near and far.”

It’s a beautifully written statement about some of the best things that church life is all about—welcome, God’s grace and the life-giving gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And though your statement doesn’t use these specific words, I know that ultimately it is the gospel message of Jesus Christ that each of you as individuals and as a congregation are trying to live out together.

(Otherwise you wouldn’t be here this morning. There are of course there are thousand lovely thing that you could be doing with your time on a Sunday morning that don’t include getting out of your house in these frigid temperatures we’ve been living through all week . . . )

And, so if it is true that gospel is at the heart as to why you are here, and why you are seeking to live in community with one another, and why you are most of all seeking to frame your life’s values as about something most assuredly greater than yourself, then, I believe the word of God before us today, the word of being present in our life is something that we all need to consider more often.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain, it is here that De Mello asks us all some good questions, “You want to hope for something better than you have right now, don’t you? Why not concentrate on the now instead of hoping for better times in the future? Why not understand the now instead of hoping for better times in the future? . . . . Isn’t the future just another trap?” (35).

All of us so regularly self-sabotage our lives when we choose to live in moments of our life that either do not exist anymore or are yet to exist at all. The consequence is that we don’t really see those in our direct circle of influence. We don’t see how the gospel can be good news where smack dab where we are!

And this is what I most want you to know: we can so easily miss God as we ignore the opportunities that the day-to-day encounters of our lives offer us, especially when we feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit to slow down, see, act and simply be.

Times when we run into a homeless woman asking for money outside the door of CVS even though we only have $2 in our pocket . . . .

Times when our child snuggles up to us, really wanting to have a conversation about how the school day went even though we know there’s laundry to fold. . . .

Times when a co-worker invites us into a more personal than usual conversation at the lunch table even though we really need to rush off to a meeting . . . .

Times when our body says stop and enjoy Sabbath though the rest of our life says go as it may even though we don’t think we have time to pause. . . .

Times when we just know we can no longer be silent about a justice issue making the headlines when our family member asks our opinion even though we know we might not get invited back to Christmas next year. . . .

Moments, being present in moments are truly what living and being the gospel is all about.

The Old Testament lesson today is one of my favorite verses of scripture that has always prodded me to greater levels of awareness, Isaiah exhorts the people by saying: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

God is at work in the world. God is at work in your life and in mine. Do we want our lives to go forth in ways of great worth in the kingdom of God? Do we want to see the new thing that God is springing forth today?

Then, our hope comes as we abide in God’s gift of now. Not in how our lives used to be. Not how we wished they were going to be one day. But our lives just as they are! For such is where vision is found, vision to truly see God. And, not wreck our lives, but find them abundantly blessed.