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This Advent, I’m thrilled to offer you the voices of some articulate storytellers— writers with wisdom to share about how their experiences of pain or loss is birthing in them something beautiful. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way of course, but in the spirit of what Leonard Cohen once wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”  

And isn’t Advent is all about light shinning in the darkness? 

If you missed Meredith's or Mary's story, check them out. Today, I’m glad to introduce to my friend, Anne Bruce, a fellow Disciples of Christ pastor and a mom. 

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Advent. The time of year I get to say: “This season snuck up on me this year!”

When we think about it, when are we ever ready? When are we ever ready to wait…. ready to plan…prepare…. do all the things our hectic culture demands of us and then somehow dig around in our ridiculous schedules to find some time to be with God?

It seems a little bit odd to find myself in this state right now, especially during Advent.

My second child, Michael, was born on October 6th. The night of his birth was long, painful, and exhausting.

When he finally came into the world, it was clear that although it was his due date, he still was not ready to be here.

I barely had a chance to look at his little, slimy face before he was rushed off to the nursery. Four hours later my husband and I learned that our pediatrician wanted him admitted to a special children’s hospital in Louisville. And so nine hours after giving birth I found myself in the passenger’s seat of my husband’s Jeep driving an hour and a half to see my baby boy and to hold him – wires, cords, oxygen and all – for the first time.

I consider myself incredibly lucky. His lack of response at birth did not herald an illness or complication. It was simply precautionary reasons that he was in the NICU. So what happened? I guess, to put it bluntly, it took him much longer to wake up than it should have. It took him longer to adjust to the cold air and blinding light of life outside the darkness of the womb.

But he was supposed to ready! It was time for him to come! Lord knows I was ready. And he should have come easily and quickly and painlessly because all second babies do, right?!

And me – I am supposed to adjust to this new life with a toddler and newborn easily, quickly, and painlessly.

And Advent – it comes every year and we should expect it and be ready for it and be filled with joy because it is a joyous season!

We know the culmination of our waiting comes in the beauty of Christmas Eve candlelight.

We know the promise of God in a tiny baby is coming again to save this messed up world. Easily, quickly, painlessly.

Except that it doesn’t work that way. It never does. Not for any of us.

I fool myself every year thinking that this Advent will be different. And I fooled myself before Michael was born thinking there would be no pointless tears this time around.

I ran across one of Mary Oliver’s poems the other day titled, “The Uses of Sorrow.”
Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift.

I have walked in the darkness of postpartum depression once already.

And I know that the grateful joy that lives in my heart will once again register in my brain. I didn’t expect to be in this place for a second time. But I feel its ugly head rearing as, one by one, another candle is lit on the Advent wreath.

So once again, much like my sweet boy, I find myself struggling to adjust to the cold air and the blinding light of life. Life outside the darkness of depression.

I’m just not ready yet to be the person I know I am; to live the beautiful life I have been given; to smile without faking it.

And yet, because I’ve been here before….and because there are so many beautiful people in my life who will hold me up….and because I trust in the promise of “God with us”…..I will wait through this season that I’m not ready for, and I will live to see the light shining brighter than before. I will be better, stronger, and more giving because of it. And hopefully, so anne-and-kidswill my precious children.

Because it takes years to understand that darkness is a gift.

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Anne is a co-pastor with her amazing husband, Jeff, at an awesome Disciples of Christ church in rural Kentucky.  Not only do they live together and work together, Anne & Jeff also parent together with their 2 year old daughter, Abbey, and 2 month old son, Michael….along with two dogs, Patch & Pepper, and a cat, Skeeter. 

Anne enjoys the relational side of ministry and has been exploring the spiritual practice of journaling and writing for a few years now.   Writing about her experience with postpartum depression is something that is new and a little bit frightening for her…. especially because she loves her children more than she could have ever imagined possible, and the gratitude she has for her life and family is deeper than the sea.

Life feels so different around our house these days.

Bottles, diapers, wipes and cute hair bows are everywhere. We are up every morning usually at 3 am.

Though the days feel long, we can't but smile at the face of our daughter who loves music, laughing and naps beside her Daddy on the weekends.

(For those of you who followed  our infertility journey I want you to know that these dear moments with her have been worth ALL the wait. Life is really so sweet with her in it. I'm so glad we kept holding out hope.)

As a new parent, you learn very quickly that EVERYONE wants to give you advice and comment on your choices. When we first brought baby girl home, I felt like I heard a broken record of statements like this:

I don't imagine you'll travel much anymore (and so far not true: we've been on 8 flights, going on 9 this week! with her already on 2 train rides!)

I guess you'll just stay at home and keep her all the time now, Elizabeth (and so far not true: in this post I told you recently some of things I've been up to as well as being her caregiver).

Say goodbye to movies and date nights (and so far not true: I think you make time for what's important to you and we've seen movies and gone out to dinner alone since baby girl entered our lives).

In these comments, I felt beat down for even entertaining a life that still felt like mine. 

But my friend Rebekah said it best. She told me early on, "Don't listen to the critics. You and Kevin will find a path that works for you."

And she was so wise!

So what I want to claim about parenthood: each of us make the journey your own. 

I am not going to parent like you. You are not going to parent like me. But, we've ALL each get to find the balance works for us when it comes to feeding, bedtimes, childcare, you name it! And in living like this, we teach our little ones what it's like to be authentic. We teach them how to show up for their lives too.

I sat in my spiritual director's office a couple weeks ago and she asked me, "How is parenthood going?" I told her what was on my mind for that day and then she replied, "It sounds like you are being you."

And to me this is the best compliment anyone could give me.

I believe we don't need to loose our identity or passions for life when we become parents. 

My daughter needs to see me participating the things and visiting the people that bring me joy.

My daughter needs to see me rest.

My daughter needs to see me lean into the support from others-- like babysitters.

This year, I'm so glad that I was able to connect with a new friend via Twitter, Hilary, the founder of a movement for parents called the New Mystique. Over at her website, Hilary writes about re-defining parenthood in this way.

Giving yourself grace.

Making the choices that work for you and your family.

Tuning into your heart as much as you try to tune into the hearts of your kids.

Check out her Community Manifesto to learn more. If you have interest in showing up for your own life as mother, she can be a great guide.

No matter if you have children or not, let us keep encouraging each other to show up for our own lives and to not loose ourselves in caregiving.

Hear me say beloveds: you are worth it! Keep finding YOU no matter who comes in your household.

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If you missed the first three installments of Good for the Soul, check them out here: hospitality, beauty & travelSimplify

When you read the title of this post, you might immediately think this blog is about cleaning out your garages or downsizing your wardrobe or even streamlining your schedule. You might think I am going to share stories about setting clearer intentions around your shopping. Or even advocating for better time management.

And while such practices would be great to write about (for another day), I want to take just a moment and talk about the simplicity of relationships.

Or in other words how in our social everything world (hundreds of Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers), the simplicity of  our relationships really does matter.

For I believe, it is good for our souls to think carefully about the people we let in our lives.

I recently read an article by sociologist Martha Beck entitled, "Don't Give Up the Ghost" in which she writes that human beings are only capable of a certain number of relationships. Our brains are not equipped, she says, to keep up intimate connections with every person we met, knew or talked to from elementary school on (though Facebook thinks we need to).

Beck then cites the research of anthropologist and psychologist Dr. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University about our capacity for social connection. Consider these numbers:

150- that's the number of people we can handle having in a social group (i.e. the people we could send Christmas cards too)

50- that's the number of friends most of us could invite to a party (for a special occasion) 

15- that's the number of people who know about what's really going on in your life  

5- that's the number of people who have access to your secrets (the real stuff) 

(And for some of us these numbers would of course be less)

I found this article and these stats fascinating especially in light of several conversations I've found myself in lately about how relationships from the past drain us and how much time we spend online or texting.

Beck offers an alternative to relationship overload: ghosting.

Ghosting, she says, is the process by which "a person gradually withdraws from a relationship-- ignoring phone calls, being mysteriously unavailable for social engagements."

Or in the words of comedian Steve Harvey we show with our actions, "I'm just not into you." We live authentically.

Beck points out is that "Confrontation is actually an intimacy skill, a way to resolve issues with people you really want in your life. . . . You are not obligated to offer this level of effort to every coworker, acquaintance or stranger that follows you on Instagram."

It sounds so horrible doesn't it? Ignoring people. Who publicly admits to this?

But we've all ghosted and been ghosted, haven't we?

We've let our silence speak for us and our changing priorities.

And I believe this kind of simplicity is good for the soul.

If you have any people pleasing genes in you (like I do) simplifying your investments in friendships can feel so cruel (almost unbearable sometimes).

But the truth of the matter is that you and I don't have time for everyone we know (or even sort of know). We just don't.

We all have limits of who we have the capacity to really love. Our hearts can't give to or trust everyone. And it's ok.

Here's the benefit of it all: when we let go the "shoulds" in our lives something amazing happens, I believe. We have time, energy for the people who build up our spirits. We find ourselves surrounded by powerful voices that can encourage us.

We ARE KNOWN.

Our lives are full of meaningful connections.

So if you're up for it, take a moment before you click on to something else and take an inventory of how you've spent your time lately. And ask yourself, how do I need to simplify my friendships?
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Who says that your life has to look like everyone else's?

Who says that emotions of Christmas are reserved only for those who you are related to?

Who says that you can't travel to two continents in one month to celebrate Christmas with over 150 children/ youth just because?

God has blessed us and so there's only one choice we have: give back. Not just in things but in physical presence.

Such as been the story of Christmas JOY for the Hagans since this time last November.

We celebrated Christmas in Kenya with these beautiful children.

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Then we traveled the last weekend to Honduras to celebrate Christmas with a group of boys living in a children's home we also knew well from our time at Feed the Children.

We just hung with the youth of the center.

We danced the night away with these little guys too!

And today, we gathered around the table of those who bear our last name and played with little guys like this one . . .

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And extended family like this during the most tropical Christmas on record in Georgia!

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I truly believe that JOY is an emotion that you can FEEL if you allow yourself to experience it. And I feel so grateful to have received it in several unique places over the last several weeks.

In all of this, I don't want you to think that everything is perfect in our lives. There's sadness this Christmas for me as there always is. But there's joy alongside the sadness. Joy that finds a way to bubble up when I stick close to dear ones like these to me from all over the world.

Where did joy find you this Christmas?

(Thanks to Edna and Heidy for capturing some of these lovely moments on your cameras!)

Few of us intentionally set out to hurt those we love.

But we do.

Angry words come out of our mouths.

Jokes that seem funny to us, offend.

We forget birthdays.

But even worse than this, often our exclamations of joy can rub deeper wounds into a loved one's pain.

I know I've been guilty of such.

But, the clash of pain and joy is not something you learn about early in life.

From where I sit, I believe, it's often a lesson that tackles us in our 20s and 30s when age no longer equals simultaneous activity with our peers. College, relationships, birthing, etc all come (or not) at a unique pace.

My first hint of this lesson came when I visited a mentor's house while home on a college break.

My friend suffered from depression (though I didn't have any idea what this meant back then) and toxic friendships. She really needed a friend to sit and hear her pain. It had been a tough week.

But she was my mentor, so I wanted to tell her my stories before any of that.

So, I charged right in.

I pulled out a photo album I'd put together and started showing her what I'd been up to. Pages after pages of posed pictures and happy faces. I was so proud of the new college friends I'd made.

But I could tell as we neared the end of my "show and tell" hour that sadness found its way to her face. Though I didn't have the courage to tell her what I noticed, the truth was this: my joy rubbed against her pain.

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A year ago, I sat with another friend, a peer who was visiting my home for the first time.

I was so excited that she'd come to visit that I was eager to share all those things you can only see when you are in a person's home. I gave a tour, especially of our new basement remodel. I showed her the framed pictures in my office. Hours later I pulled out old pictures from the upstairs bookshelf including my wedding album. On auto pilot, I told her the stories.

But again, the same thing happened.

As much as my friend tried to engage what I told her about the happy day in Southern Georgia when I became a Hagan, by the last couple of pages she was done.  My friend loved me, but she was single. She didn't want to see any more pictures of me in a white dress.

Whereas my wedding album told a story of a fulfilling union for me, my wedding album to her said, "You're alone."

My joy rubbed up against her pain.

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I've been on the other side of this conflict too.

Friends have gone on and about their babies, and then sent more emails about baby #2 and #5.

My Facebook feed is full of ultrasound pictures (even some in 4D!)

And invitations to baby showers fill the mailbox.

It's joy rubbing up against my pain. It's a stomach sinking, crappy feeling that I am learning how to endure.

Because at this juncture of the Hagan household, children in the home is not something we can have (though we want).

Every time I hear stories after stories of pregnancy and "the cutest thing" my child said today from a well-meaning friend, I want to be happy and supportive. Yet, my heart aches.

But, I believe in community.  I believe in sharing in the joy and pain other's lives. My faith gives me this desire.

Is there a way to be better and ask others to be better in return?

There many not be easy answers. If any answers at all.

Our world is full of both joy and pain.

All I know is this: "I'm sorry" and "How can I be a good friend to you? with a spoon full of self-awareness is a good start.

It is Advent.

Mary is 36 weeks pregnant, and baby Jesus is due any day.

How do we learn to wait for a baby savior?

Waiting for Christmas is about waiting for a baby to be born, and as any mom will tell you, that kind of waiting is hard work. We get impatient. We get distracted. We take baby waiting as primarily an excuse to eat huge quantities of butter, chocolate, and combinations of the two. But babies change everything, and learning to wait with hopeful longing for God’s new life to burst into the world is at the heart of the Christian faith.

But not everyone who waits for babies waits 40-week gestational periods. There are some parents who must endure rounds and rounds of infertility tests and treatments to even have the possibility hearing that a baby is officially on the way. There are some parents who wait by wading through the rigors of adoption paperwork and court dates. There are some parents who wait for babies who doctors have said have little chance of survival out of utero. There are some co-waiters: aunts and uncles, grandparents, and siblings who come alongside those who wait for babies, both when there is a due date and also when there is not.

What can all of these experiences of waiting teach us about waiting for baby Jesus?

sarah2.0We (Sarah and Elizabeth) became friends as roommates at Duke Divinity School. We later were both ordained as ministers within the Baptist church. Several years after seminary, I (Sarah) birthed two girls back-to-back and wrote a theological reflection about the experience in a book called, Creating with God. I (Elizabeth) am still waiting to become an official mother, and have written a book (forthcoming) about infertility. How could we as pastors and friends hold our radically different experiences of waiting in the same conversation? This writing project is our answer.

This Advent season, we invite you to learn to wait for a baby Savior by waiting with us.

We have asked 4 people with radically different experiences of waiting for babies from even us to write one meditation for each of the four weeks of Advent: Joe, Susan, Beth, and Dayna. We hope that over the course of Advent you get to know each of us better and enter into our stories in a deeper way. We’ve also asked guest writers to join their voices to our project too: Joy, Chris, Jonathan, Jennifer, Kevin, Ed and MaryAnn. They’ve got some fabulous things to say too!

Join us in this conversation of study and preparation this Advent. If you would like a PDF of the project emailed to you, leave your email in the comments or sent a message in the "Contact" section of the blog and we'll be glad to send you the daily devotions.

With anticipation,
Sarah and Elizabeth

If you want to read some posts- check out these favorite ones from some of our writers posted in Advent 2013:

Discovering Joy” Dayna Olson-Getty (a grieving mom’s story about finding peace)

Discovering Joy” Elizabeth Hagan (a grieving mom to be)

Discovering Joy” Susan Smartt Cook (a midwife’s perspective on waiting)

Love That Groans” Beth Dotson (a grandmother who has waited with others)

Love That Groans” Joy Bennett (a grieving mother who lost a child)

Waiting with Hope” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (an adoptive dad)

Waiting with Hope” Sarah Jobe (a mom of 2 young girls)

photo 1In a couple of days my Kenyan adventures will be over-- for this time around-- and when I think of the word that comes to mind, all I am still stuck with is JOY.

How in a country with so much need, so much poverty, so much corruption can there be joy?

How in a line of work with so many motherless children and hungry mouths to feed can there be joy?

How in place where getting even the simplest of tasks accomplished takes SO long can there be joy?

But, JOY abounds here.

There has been joy in hearing the children at the orphanage learn more bits and pieces of English and shouting my name as I play with them on the playground "Elizabet, Elizabet!"

There has been joy in remembering that life is indeed about simple pleasures like a cup of tea, the ability to walk the stairs (even to the 8th floor), laugher when bumpy roads make the journey all the more interesting.

There has been joy in the deep waters of relationship-- feeling included, accepted and challenged along the way.

In this joy, I have felt a part of such a larger family-- a African family, a Kenyan family, even though my skin is white.

I have tasted the delight that is dessert at the end of the day-- eating it because it's too sweet of a moment not to indulge.

I have seen with my own eyes the beauty that is children feeling noticed by just one person-- human heart to human heart.

There's something about Africa that always stirs my soul and for this reason I haven't been able to do anything less than wake up here with a huge smile and a prayer, saying to God (in the spirit of the writer Anne Lamott): "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Joy has come to me this week in cupfuls, bowlfuls and more than I can even take in. My spiritual bags are quite overflowing as I start to pack. And so I testify- taste and see that the Lord is good!

You haven't seen me blog as much as I normally do lately other than posting sermons. Writing like a crazy woman some days, I've sought to give more attention to my book long project instead of other stuff.

When I come out of my writing cave and seek to tell people what I've been up to, the number one thing people say often in a condescending tone of voice is: "That must be so healing for you" or "Writing is so therapeutic, so good for you."

And in response, I use self-control to not growl. And I really want to growl.

I realize people mean well. They're just trying to be supportive. Many can't imagine writing as honestly as I am trying to do.

But, I want to proclaim writing is not an "all about me" task. It's not something I do rooted in selfish motives. I' m not trying to throw up my emotional baggage on the world. I write because I am a writer. I write about painful things sometimes because painful things have happened to me and need to be heard. I write about joy sometimes because happy things happen to me and I want to encourage others. I write because like a painter or a carver or a sculptor, word choice is my art form. I write to practice my art. Sometimes what I produce is good art. Other times it needs to be sent back to the drafting board altogether or thrown in the trash. But it's still art. And I still must write.

If I wrote for therapy, then I should get a journal or talk to a therapist (I already do both from time to time). These things are less painful. More private. Less drafting and wasted paper.

It's burdensome task, I believe, putting your honest self out to the world, having no idea how people will respond to a story that isn't just a story to you. It's your life, and the only one you've got. Writing about your own life, I believe, can be one of the most courageous things people do.

Sure, as they say, writing can mature the soul. In writing, the pain has somewhere to go: to the paper. And, when you have to think about something long enough to find just the right word, you usually walk away with heighten self-awareness (which is never a bad thing). Healing and self-awareness are cousins. It's true.

But I don't think most writers, write because of personal sickness (though I'm sure some do, but I'm not friends with these folks). I don't think writers write so that just anyone can know their less than flattering thoughts or moments. I don't know think they write just to feel better. Writers write to connect them into what it means to be human.

And this is my point: I write because I don't know how to not write. So if you stick around, you'll have more to read in the future. And, this is what I can promise you, the stories to come will be my truth.

Promise in the Night Lenten Series: I am the Lord

Isaiah 43:1-7 with Mark 14:43-46, 53-62

This morning as we begin our conversation together about this week's promise in the night-- Jesus saying to us, "I am Lord." I think it might be good if you are willing to work with me here for us to take a time out and talk to each other before I get into the main ideas of what I would like to share with you. So this is what I need you to do. Make sure you are sitting next to somebody. No one is allowed to sit in a pew by themselves. If you are a guest visiting with us, know that our church is quite informal and friendly (like I hope you've experienced already today), so we welcome you to participate in this discussion with us too.

And this is what I want you to share as you feel comfortable with one another: "Who is Jesus? And what does Jesus mean to you?" Share your answer to this question in a small group of 2 or 3 sitting close beside you. If there is anything I know about Washington Plaza, it is that you don't have trouble being honest with one another, especially when it comes to matters of faith. So, in this spirit of "there is no wrong answer" I invite you to share with one another right now, "Who is Jesus? And what does Jesus mean to you?" (SHARING)

I hope that as you shared with your neighbors, you learned something about them that maybe you didn't know before. . .  The question of "Who is Jesus?" is central to the gospel passage we find ourselves in this morning. For, just as we have been preparing for the past two Sundays as we read of the plot Judas set into motion to turn Jesus over to the chief priests, at this juncture of Mark 14 starting with verse 53, it is all happening.

 The elders of the religious councils have come to Jesus with swords and cubs and have taken Jesus into custody. And though there seems to be little credible evidence against him, with everything said against him appearing to be hearsay, Jesus is put on trial. In this trial, he is accused of the most serious of religious crimes at the time. He says he's the Son of God.

Look with me at Jesus' exact response in verse 62 of Mark 14. After Jesus was asked, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one?" He responds by saying, "I am . .. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

If Jesus wanted to beat around the bush and speak in politically correct language of the time, this was not the way to go. In a culture that held so much respect for the name of God--- not even writing out all the letters when putting God's name on paper-- saying that you were "the Christ" was heresy.

Let me be clear here when I say, that it is this very confession: "I am the Christ" that led to his death.

Though centuries of strained Christian/ Jewish relations and a lot of Judas haters out there who want to place the blame on a the Jewish people as a whole or on the one bad apple disciple-- these players in the drama played minor, very minor roles in the larger drama of what God was doing in the life of Jesus.

Because in the end, Jesus came to this dreadful juncture of his life for one simple reason. He said he was Lord. This dark night was ALL about Jesus' Lordship. The chief priests, the whole Sanhedrin council and Judas for that matter were simply players in the story (and the players could have been anybody) who helped to illuminate this truth: Jesus was Lord.

Can you imagine how dark this night of betrayal, arrest, and interrogation must have been for Jesus?

Can you imagine how lonely he must have been?

Can you imagine how abandoned Jesus must have felt by those he trusted the most?

Can you imagine how Jesus' human nature desperately wanted to call upon the bands and bands of angels and archangels and strike down all who sought to speak wrongly of him?   But at the same time,  his heart burst in compassion for those misguided in truth?  What a conflicted, hurt and deserted place Jesus was in!

Where was the hope? Where was the promise for the night? Where was the light?

If we turn over to our Old Testament lection for today, what we find are words of comfort for a group of people, who like Jesus, found themselves in an unfortunate situation.  All was not right with their world either.

The children of Israel lived in Babylon in exile, and had lived there for a very long time. The prophet exhorts them: soon they'd be asked to go back to their homeland, even as they'd grown quite comfortable in this foreign country. They'd be asked to deal with the ways in which they'd fallen short of God's best for them. They'd have to face up to their own darkness, the blindness of their own hearts. And, they'd be forced to make changes for the journey that awaited them. 

And while the word of the Lord could have been harsh and accusatory, it's not the promise we hear as chapter 43 of Isaiah opens. For the promise begins in the shift of how the Israelites were addressed: "BUT NOW, thus says the Lord, he  created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."

And what follows are some of the most beautiful words of comfort in scripture-- words that I wrote down and put on the wall of my bedroom as a teenager to get me through some difficult times-- words that I often read now at every funeral I preach in an effort to speak words of comfort to mourners-- words that speak of God's promise to walk with us even in the darkness of dark nights.

Look with me at verse two: the Lord says, "When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you."  WHY? Because we are told, "For I am the Lord your God."

Such is a promise full of dramatic metaphors which illustrate God's promise to walk with us no matter what situations we find ourselves in.

What is most interesting to me about this passage is what it doesn't say about the journey of faith.

It doesn't say that we won't pass through rivers. It doesn't say that we won't walk through fires. It doesn't say that flames won't get anywhere near us. Though most of us would like to assume that if we just try hard and love well and live the best life we can that life's darkness nights won't find us, Isaiah's promise of prophecy does not guarantee us this at all. In fact, if we have found ourselves deep in rivers or in the middle of fires, or feeling as though our lives are going to crumble at any moment, then we are in good company. We are well acquainted with what it means to be a human being-- just as Jesus experienced on his dark night too.

But even though our lives are full of troubles and there will be moments when the nights of winter seem long and unending-- we receive a hopeful promise. Jesus is Lord.

And not just any Lord-- a word that might be scary to our independent sentiments of a society. But a Lord who loves us unconditionally, a Lord who pledges to be in our lives no matter what, a Lord who holds out joy for us when it seems to be the emotion we fear we'll never experience again.

Look with me at verse four, "Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you , I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life."

It's a love letter for a particular people, a love letter from a God who wants to show forth the light of the good news. I am the Lord.

I don't know where you are in your journey of faith this day-- believer growing, eager to go deeper in your faith, skeptic standing on the sidelines not ready to say you believe in this Jesus story yet, or somewhere in between, but I dare say wherever we find ourselves this morning, we've ALL had experiences where we've experienced God's presence with us, especially in difficult times.  (For it seems our awareness of God seems to be softened to receive most memorably when we hit a place of helplessness, lostness, or even feeling as though our lives are so bad "that there's no place to go but up.")

For me, one such time when I felt God's presence with me came when I was on my first trip out of the country to Africa as a freshman in college. Alone, I traveled to spend three weeks with some missionary friends of our family. Eager to experience the culture of some new nations and to be with folks I thought at the time were some of "God's best people on earth" (i.e. the American missionaries) I boarded the plane and set out for what I thought would be a life-changing adventure.

However, the trip turned out completely not as I expected. These missionaries, I admired from afar, turned out not to be the welcoming bunch I hoped they'd be-- to me a young adult hoping to follow in their footsteps one day. None of them really seemed to care to get to know me at all. The missionaries were among some of the most rude, selfish-centered and arrogant people I'd ever met. You could imagine how crushed I was. All my dreams for a career in international service felt ruined. There was no way I'd want to work in a community like this! What in the world, was I then going to do with my life? And did I even want to follow this God?

But, in spite of the unfortunate turn of events, grace found me. This grace came from two women, whom I don't even remember their names anymore who I worked alongside as I taught at Bible camp during one of the weeks I spent with the American missionaries. These two women, from the US like me, but in particular, came with the purpose solely of teaching some of the missionary's kids while their parents sat in meetings. And, I have to say, if I ever met an angel on earth, I know it was these two women, who said they were from Alabama. They nurtured me, welcomed me to teach with them and showed me through their actions that I was not as alone as I felt at the time. God spoke through me and my broken spirit at the time to say, "I am the Lord; and it is going to be ok." I don't know if I would have made it back home in one piece if it weren't for these two women.

In the same way, one of the things I hear most often from you, even those of you who still have great doubts about your faith and wonder if you are a Christian at all, is that you've experienced God's presence in dark times of your life. You've had experiences where you've encountered this promise in the night of "Fear not, for I am with you." You've received comfort from something you can't explain in rational terms. You've experienced what you can only call the divine. And these are moments that we remember.

But the thing is that though many of these experiences are impactful in the moment, our memory as a human race is short. How quick we are to forget! How quick we are to doubt! How quick we are to throw up our hands in disgust, wondering why we find ourselves drowning in rivers again, feeling as though we have no life-preserver to help get ourselves to shore!

Such is why today's promise in the night is so important. Jesus is Lord. For in fact it is the promise, if we remember nothing, I mean absolutely nothing else about the Christian life, it is the promise we need. Because knowing and believing that Jesus is Lord changes EVERYTHING about our personal lives, about our life together as a church and about our outlook for the future.

And because Jesus is Lord as we walk this journey in community, everything begins to look different. We get out of our pettiness, our focus completely on ourselves, and we look up to the one who is the Lord.

When we are figuring out who is bringing what for coffee teams on Sunday morning and how to clean the tables, we remember: "Jesus is Lord."

When we are choosing what color to paint our walls in our bedroom with our spouse and really want to strangle him or her for their tacky taste, we remember: "Jesus is Lord."

When we are deciding if we will buy just one more thing at the mall or make our pledge to the church- we remember: “Jesus is Lord."

When we find ourselves bickering and then not speaking to a dear friend for weeks-- we remember: "Jesus is Lord."

When quick fire backs of anger seem more enticing than going the extra mile in life-- we remember: "Jesus is Lord"

When folks slander us, speak ill of us for reasons we know are untrue - we remember: “Jesus is Lord"

And, most of all when we find ourselves in bleak situations when we wonder how in the world we are going to get out of bed and face another day, we remember what? "Jesus is Lord."

For this promise in the night or in the day or in the in between can make all the difference in our lives my friends. For when we get out of the framework of this life is about me, me, and more just me, we realize that though the road of following the Lord may be rocky and though the journey may be long, we have this larger truth in which to cling. And what is it? Jesus is Lord.

AMEN

How hard it is for us strong, "can do anything types" to not be afraid of love! Love given and acknowledged always  holds a level of vulnerability that sometimes we simply aren't willing to show. But, that our souls truly need.

This week has been a happy one around our house in particular. In October, there is the week of Kevin as less than a week separates Kevin's birthday from our dating and wedding anniversary. And in February, we celebrate the week of Elizabeth as a week separates Valentine's Day and my birthday. These celebration weeks became an intentional decision between the two of us when we planned our wedding date (and also the farmer's almanac said it wasn't going to rain the town of our outdoor wedding, so we went with a October date-- important too ) . In these two special weeks, we've thought of ways to remember and enjoy life together such as mornings of breakfast in bed or dinners cooked at home (all you city busy folks know what I mean when I add this on the list of a special treat) or sometimes a overnight get-a-way.

In this being "my week" including a special trip together last week (a writing retreat for me), dinner out last night and my super surprise gift this morning: an IPad this morning, I've felt the love.  And, I'm grateful. How did I find myself with so many amazing people in my life?

Sometimes, though, we want tangible expressions of love, but we also don't know what to do with them when they arrive. I remember a fabulous birthday several years ago when I was literally on cloud 9 from all the gestures of support around me and felt paralyzed all at the same time. I think if I got one more birthday card, that year, I would have exploded. And, I know I am not the only one who has been in this place of bewilderment.

When lovely people do lovely things, it is easy to be stopped in our tracks and just not know how to respond. Sometimes we shut down, in the pain of the joy. For, we don't have the room in our hearts to take it in. The act of stretching our hearts to open to others can feel as painful as a long work out at the gym. When our souls have never felt loved in our deepest caves, sometimes love's arrival can actually sting a little. In fact, being loved, just as we are, by others can often be one of the scariest emotions in life.

While watching an Oscar special this week featuring the wonderful actress, Viola Davis, it struck me how authentically she described her own struggles with receiving love. Watch a portion of this interview here. Saying, how much of a radical transformation love became in her as she began to trust the man for the first time who would become her husband. Something as simple as allowing him to drive her somewhere became a symbol of abiding love-- love that was without fear.

I John 4 talks about love's relationship with fear in this way:

16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . .  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love

This is what I am learning about love-- there is no fear in love when it begins to truly seep into our hearts. But, such a fearless stance requires practice and people who are willing to stay in your life long enough that you actually believe them when they say to you, "I love you."

I'm just so amazed that I get this week every year to practice feeling loved and wish the same kind of experience for others too. Everybody has somebody who loves them. Everybody has somebody that they need to tell that they love them. The question on our shoulders, then is: will we love? Or will we be afraid? I want to love.

God Calls You to Take Care of Yourself

I Corinthians 6:11-20

Today we begin a series of messages in this season of Epiphany all about God's calling to us.

It's the time of year that the Christian calendar asks us to do some consideration again about this life of faith that we've committed to live in. It's the time of year for us to hear from scripture again some of Jesus' hopes for our becoming as people called the Body of Christ. And, today's "God Calls You" blank inserts the words "To Take Care of Yourself."

As I was preparing for this sermon this week, I thought back to previous studies I'd heard on the Corinthian text and the topical sermon series I'd heard or preached before. And, I realized this. I'd never heard a sermon or preached one for that matter on caring for self. Not one. I wondered why?

It seems we tow a good line as leaders and faith seekers in Christian community on the topics of self-sacrifice, selflessness and extending beyond the bounds of our own natural abilities so that God can work mightily through us, but rare it seems that we ever talk about care of self.

While we are eager to talk about becoming something "more:"  more loving, more giving, more serving, more faithful, it is rare that we talk about the physicality of a body from which all of the loving, giving serving and faithfulness comes or do we ever talk about our limits of care.

I don't know why this is, other than generations of doctrine and preaching and study has seemed to do a great job disconnecting the body and the soul.

Because of humankind's fall in Genesis 3, we learn we're condemned to a sentence of bodily suffering, pain.  The body is bad and will die while the soul is good and will abide in the presence of God forever, if redeemed.  Yet, we have forgotten that God previously said over the words of our birth that we were made in God's very own image and called "very good."

As a result of all of this confusion, we easily think us regular church going people, what's the point when it comes to our own health and well-being?

If we really need rest or a day of solitude and someone from the church calls us to do something, then the "godly" choice is always to say yes to others and to the church.

Furthermore, if we want our lives to be pleasing to God, then we've got to learn to give up beauty, give up pleasure, or even lay our own medical problems on the altar of denial, so we have time for everyone else other than us.  Though we are taught all along about love and grace and all that jazz, we believe the only way God will REALLY love us is we die to self by putting ourselves last.

There's a poem about JOY which you may have heard. It is the acrostic for the word JOY: Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last.

I remember my father saying to the children in Vacation Bible School once that "If you really want to be happy in life, you'll learn to love Jesus more than anyone else, even yourself."

As I grew older and had the ability to consider the deeper meaning of this saying I saw so regularly, I doubted the claim of "I wasn't really loving Jesus if I was loving myself."

Is this what Jesus' own ministry modeled for us?

Did Jesus never eat, sleep, take retreats or be quiet from time to time? But, Christian culture seem to teach me and my peers--  loving yourself was a bad thing. It you took a mental health or catch up on your sleep day, you just didn't talk about it.

But, is this what our epistle lesson from this morning is seeking to say about care? Deign it? In the eyes of Paul, do our bodies matter?  How might our calling be to care for ourselves be the foundation of all our care for others?

We find our lection for this morning found smack dab in the middle of a long series of instructional teaching from Paul to the church in Corinth, a church we know that Paul helped to found and nurture in its infancy.

Paul sought to teach this gathered community-- new coverts to the way of Christ-- what living out their baptism (as we were talking about last week) would look like in the practical every day issues in a particular context.

(As an aside, this is often why, we as modern readers have a hard time with the epistle scriptures. While there is much to learn from the "big ideas" of these letters, we often reach dead ends of frustrating fundamentalism when we take the directives of Paul too literally).

In the verses previous to and after our lection we hear Paul describing his concerns for order in the church, legal matters, marriage and the process of worship.

So, with this understanding, it seems less random these verses about sexual morality and food before us today which say in verse 13: "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food" or in verse 18: "Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself."

It's like we are listening into a thousand plus year old conversation, though one-way, about food and sex morality's place in the life of faith. Paul wanted the church at Corinth to know that even as he taught much about "freedom in Christ" and the truth that being in Christ meant they were no longer bound to laws about this and that behavior-- still limits existed.  "All things are lawful for me," Paul reminds them but adds, "not all things are beneficial."

It's his way of saying, in the story of Christ's grace, we are not left out of the family of God for what we do and our actions do not change the way God looks at us or thinks of us, BUT freedom in Christ has limits. The limits are meant for our good.

Such is summed up when we reach verse 19, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body."

Like a young child who will not take instructions without their parent or caregiver answering their thousand, "Why?" questions, Paul gives the whys for his considerations for this particular community about how they partner sexually and what food they put in their mouths.

Their bodies are not bad. Their bodies are not just flesh and bones with nothing to do with their souls. Their bodies gave life and thus were a part of God's very own Self.  Therefore, a call resounds to care for their bodies.

I wonder how many of us in this room made New Year's Resolutions?  And, among all of you who made resolutions, I wonder how many of your stated intentions related in some way to your body or health.  (Any brave souls to raise your hands?)

A recent article about our New Year's Resolution practices in one US city[i] states that the top five resolutions made this year included to:

1. Spend more time with friends and family

2. Become fit in fitness

3.  Lose Weight and tame the bulge

4. Quit Smoking

5. Quit Drinking

No matter that social studies say that 80% of New Year's Resolutions fail by January 20th (that's only 5 days away in fact), there seems to be a compulsion in most of us to improve our satisfaction with our bodies and an equally strong compulsion to not.

According the National Center for Heath and Disease Control, nearly 2/3 of adults and children in the United States are overweight; nearly 1/3 are obese.  And, if we single out the church going crowd the statistics are worse. A recent study by a Purdue University sociologist "found that religious participation in the United States specially, participation in the Christian denominations (for which the Baptist church was highlighted as a chief offender)-- correlates with status as overweight or obesity.[ii]

At first reading of this I wanted to shout, "Oh come, on, so not true!" But, sadly I think the statistics tell our story. Our relationship with our bodies is out of control. Our disconnectedness of body and soul is out of control.

Have you been to a church dinner lately? Have you met a group of pastors lately? Though our church and its leaders might be able to say that we've cared for the sick and dying and we've given good weddings and funerals, when it comes to taking care of our own health, our own well-being, and our own mental peace, we do a really lousy job of it.

We don't really think our bodies matter that much.

I can't tell you how many times I've been at clergy gatherings where fellow colleagues have boasted of "never taking their vacation" or "working from sun up from sun down."

I can't tell you how many pastoral encounters I've had in homes when a piece of cake or pie has been shoved on me though I really keep saying, "I'm full." I can't tell you how many times the sin of gluttony has been ignored in church life as if it is ok to eat and eat and eat some more and the sin of lust has been ignored and we all know what happens when that comes out . . .  We as the church global have problems with God's call to care for our bodies.

All of this talk this morning is not meant to knock those of us who in the midst of a life-long struggle with body image, time management and finding ways to love exercise (though we hate it so), but it is this text that asks us to stop and ponder what IS God's calling to our bodies again. It's our time now to ask us what God's calling to "glorify God in our bodies" looks like?

In my early years of faith, I heard a lot about salvation as the process of being made right with God.

Salvation as making a stated confession to a community of my sin, repentance and faith in God. Salvation amounted to a prayer of confession and a lifetime of service in the church, hoping to lead as many others as possible in this prayer of confession too.

It was such a big deal that people would ask, "What was the day that you came to Christ?" And, when you appropriately answered, your salvation story was complete.

But, even as my understand of salvation began to change over the years, a class during my 3rd year of seminary, shifted my theology in a completely different direction.

Salvation was not, as Dr. Esther Acolotse, put it in pastoral care class one afternoon about a moment or a limited engagement experience. Salvation, she suggested was about become a human being-- the human being God designed each of us to be at creation. Salvation was about a journey to be made whole.

Such words lingered with me long that day after class and have stuck with me until now. That, yes, God calls us to take care of ourselves because our salvation depends on it.

But, what does this look like, you might wonder? I'm still trying to figure it out, of course, but what I've learned is that there is no way that I can act on God's calling for care of self if my schedule is out of balance.

If we try to over work or under work, if we say "yes" when we should be saying "no," we wind up cranky, drinking too much caffeine, and eventually physically ill.

But, if we remember when we look at the week ahead that it is good to care of ourselves-- the time we need to cook meals at home, the time we need to go on walks, the time we need to decompress-- as much as we say "yes" to other things, a funny thing happens.

We feel better. We might just sleep better. We enjoy my life more, and we exude the joy of being exactly the person God created us to be.  And, sure there are always times in your life and mine when we need to go more than others, but afterwards we always must remember to take a step back and not let this constant rush be our norm.

The stakes are high with this calling, my friends, for you and I get into more trouble than we can ever know now if we don't live into this. Not only what we first might think-- facing life with preventable health concerns dragging us down-- but in our community relations with one another. If we are ever going to be the presence of God to one another as other callings upon our life will ask of us-- we must first start with ourselves.

After all St. Teresa of Avila once said to her community:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.

So, what are you going to do to care for yours? AMEN

 


[i] Top Ten New Years Resolutions. Albrecht Powell. http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/holidays/tp/resolutions.htm

[ii]Mary Louise Bringle. "Eating Well: Seven Paradoxes of Plenty." http://www.baylor.edu/christianethics/HealthArticleBringle.pdf