Friday, June 22, 2018

Pondering the Patterns of God's Garden

Creation is messy… Creation sometimes appears random. Until you look more closely…

I have the largest flower bed on our cul de sac—maybe in my whole neighborhood.  It’s kind of a blessing and a curse.  I like gardening, and the flowers are always so pretty once they are planted and established. But there’s hours of hard work each year bent over on my hands and knees to get to the pretty part.  

Beauty doesn’t just naturally spring from the Earth.  Barren soil is not all that attractive.  

The "before" picture.
A large eyesore on my front yard.
When you dig in it you’re bound to get dirty—especially when it’s humid.  You can try wearing gloves but, generally speaking, gardening is not a good hobby for those who are averse to getting dirt under their nails.  

I find the process of creating my flower garden each year is less science and more art.  While there may be similarities from year to year in my garden, each year’s creation is unique.   I go to the nursery and procure a few flats of plants.  I always have some idea of what I want when I start out, but it’s somewhat random, based on what they have available, and what strikes me as good-looking plants.  

Once I start planting, the random element continues.  One "communes" with the soil for a sense of what plants should go where.  I planted a red plant here, so it would be good if other red plants were around it.  These plants are bigger, so they go behind smaller ones.  These I know make a good border, so I plant them on the edge of the garden.  Patterns begin to emerge after a while, but they are subject to random interruptions that I, the gardener, choose to insert.

At my church, we've been having a science and faith discussion.  We have been reading The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis Collins.  We’ve been talking about how God has used evolution to bring about creation as we know it today. As I was digging in the dirt of my garden recently, I started thinking about how creation is sort of like God working in a garden.  It's not that big of a leap to connect the two.  After all,  the Creation Stories of Genesis 1 & 2 take place in a garden.  Furthermore, John 20 describes Mary's first encounter with Jesus after the resurrection as taking place in a garden. When Mary first encounters the Risen Lord, she mistakenly identifies him as "the gardener".   I don't think it was an accident that those details in John's account of the resurrection evoke parallels to the Creation stories of Genesis.  The original first century readers would have surely noticed the connection as well.  The storyteller's message is clear: the resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits of the "new creation".  

Anyway, back to my flower garden.  Look at the image at the top of this article again.  At first the flowers appear completely random; but stare at the picture long enough and patterns begin to emerge.  Those patterns aren't accidents; they were put there intentionally by the gardener—me. 

Probing the patterns of DNA.
Likewise, Collins argues that if you examine the DNA evidence in detail—which he has done in his role as head of the government's Human Genome Project—the patterns of creation (or language of God, as he calls it) begin to emerge.

For example, humans are clearly quite different than mice, so at first glance we might assume we were created completely independently of each other.  However, if you compare the DNA structure of a mouse to that of a human, you find surprising similarities, particularly in the portions of the gene that “code” for protein.  In other areas (called junk DNA), humans and mice are much less similar—but if you search, you can still find similarities.  Long story short, Collins shows that there is compelling evidence to suggest that at some point in our ancient evolutionary history there was a common ancestor between mice and men.  

In my garden, I interrupt the pattern at times, usually to “fit” a flower in an awkward space.  I introduce a variation from what might be expected.   Likewise, it seems God (nature) interrupts the genetic pattern at times.  For reasons science can’t (yet) explain, there is a random element introduced to the language of God through genetic mutations.  Collins explains that these mutations seem to occur naturally once in every one hundred million base pairs of DNA per generation.   To put this jargon in perspective, that means that any one of us has 60 mutations that neither of our parents had.  (So, X-Men fans, maybe there’s a sense that we are ALL potential mutants.)  Obviously, most mutations are either benign, and thus have little impact one way or another, or harmful, in which case they quickly die out in successive generations. However, once in a great while, a mutation comes along that proves advantageous.  Offspring born with said mutation then gain an advantage over those without it and it passes along.  

Collins concludes that evolution through random variation combined with natural selection seems to be the most elegant explanation of how God “gardens”. Darwin's theory was  developed in the 1800s (published in 1859), long before we could see what was going on at the cellular level.  However, it has stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny and proven to be a remarkably accurate portrayal of how God (nature) actually works. There are, if you will, patterns that are used—but the patterns are imperfect.  Over long periods of time, those imperfections are what account for the diversity of life on Earth, which can all trace their way back to common ancestors.  Again, the theory only makes sense if the time intervals involved are immense—as in millions if not billions of years.  Truly our God is not in a hurry.  

There are some other explanations or theories that explain how we got here.  For example, Collins has a chapter on Intelligent Design (ID), which suggests there are “gaps” in evolution that science can’t explain (e.g., lack of fossil evidence), and in these “gaps”, God had to have intervened in the creative process.  While ID might initially look like a cleaner explanation of creation—and is one that explicitly puts the Creator in the process—Collins concludes the theory doesn’t stand up to rigorous scientific analysis. It also lapses into a common theological fallacy of placing God in the gaps.  That is, there is an acknowledged “gap” in our scientific understanding of these processes at this point.  That must mean that thisis where God stepped into the process.  The problem arises when subsequent scientific investigations find an explanation for what used to be attributed to God.  We have the makings of a theological crisis!

In contrast, the theory of evolution suggests God is part of the whole messy—but glorious—unfolding of creation from Genesis to Revelation.  It’s similar to the role I play as gardener creating my flower bed each year; I have to be involved in the whole process: e.g., buying plants, planting, weeding, mulching.  Be warned though: Just as gardening gets you dirty, you’re sure to get some “dirt” in your nails if you dig in to the details of evolution.  It might stretch your faith to think of God working this way.  There’s so much baggage surrounding the “e-word”.  It’s seen as opposing faith, but I don’t think it is intended to be that way.  

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob is also the God of the genome and evolution.  Evolution is simply the means that God has used—and continues to use—to create.

Science has shown us that change is constantly happening on levels our eyes cannot see (i.e., DNA)—but it will typically take millennia for those changes to result in a favorable adaptation, much less a new species emerging.  Randomness is clearly required for evolution to work.  Does that mean God cannot be part of it?  Is it possible that what we see as random is not in fact random to God?   If the process is random, if it were to happen again, it might not turn out the same way.  Is that a problem?  Maybe some other lifeform would become dominant this time? (But for an asteroid crashing to the Yucatan Peninsula ~66 million years ago, maybe the dominant form that evolved would’ve been reptilian.)  But then again, what if God is in control, and we trust God to deal with the details. Perhaps the Creator’s whole point in doing all this was the end result (at least so far): the human race.  As Daniel Harrel says in Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, “Natural selection doesn’t have to mean godless selection.”  Perhaps God uses natural selection to “reign in” the randomness of mutation and point the whole process of creation toward its intended end.  That’s my working assumption, at least for now.  

How about you?? What's your take on evolution?  Does belief in evolution sit squarely with your faith in God?  

Friday, June 1, 2018

Ponderings on the Presence of God

I can now add a yurt to the places I’ve slept... 

For Memorial Day weekend, my family stayed a few nights at a campground in Lancaster, PA.   We had the experience of camping (e.g., hanging out around a campfire, eating hot dogs and hamburgers and making S’mores) but then we could go inside to three-star accommodations when it was time for bed.  It was like a hotel room with a campsite out back. The pullout bed was quite comfortable.  

It was nice to get away from the “normal routine” for a few days.  To simply brew a pot of coffee and come have a few minutes to sit on the deck outside our yurt in the morning was good.  I realize I don’t engage in this practice as much as I once did—and I miss it.  There is always some task or responsibility that calls me—and I have a hard time ignoring them to focus on prayer.  Ironically, many of the morning noises at this place reminded me of home: Canada Geese (many of whom no longer seem to return to Canada), Mallard ducks, other birdsongs, woodpeckers.  But the change of scenery—and removal of "regular responsibilities"—seemed to make all the difference.

As I sat on the deck, I looked upon a small grove of trees near the yurt.  I began to concentrate and became aware of so much activity going on that I hadn’t noticed when I first sat down. That little micro-ecosystem was teeming with life!  Many different birds were moving around singing their songs and doing what God made them to do.  Then I wondered: How many plant species were in just that little area alone?  How many creatures are there that I cannot see?  As the first line of Gerald Manley Hopkins poem,God’s Grandeur, puts it: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The question is:  Am I “tuned in” enough to notice?

I felt a bit like Jacob waking up from his dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-17). Up until that moment in the story, Jacob was too busy doing his own thing (mostly hiding from his twin brother Esau, who last he knew, wanted to kill him for tricking him into giving Jacob both his inheritance and birthright) to be conscious of God.  It’s only when he was forced out into the wilderness, on the run, removed from all the noise of his “normal” life, that he got a glimpse of what had been there all along—he just hadn’t taken time to notice.  

I started to sing Francesca Batistelli’s, Holy Spirit, a simple tune I often use as my prayer to welcome God’s Presence, saying “Holy Spirit you are welcome here.  Come flood this place.  Fill the atmosphere.  Your glory God is what our hearts long for, to be overcome by your Presence Lord”.  On this morning, however, it was the words of the bridge that particularly spoke to me:
Let us become more aware of Your presence.
Let us experience the glory of Your goodness.
A quick survey of Scripture shows that the idea of being aware of God’s Presence has changed over the centuries.  It’s interesting I stayed in a yurt—a semi-permanent tent—this weekend.  At the time of Moses and the Exodus, God’s Presence was believed to dwell in a yurt, or a tent if you prefer. The Tabernacle was literally a moving Temple for God (see Exodus 26–27 for details on how it was made).[1] It was a pretty elaborate structure that clearly would have taken some work to set up and take down at each stop along the way.  It was like the yurt I stayed in this weekend—only on a larger scale, and much more ornate as would befit the place where God’s Presence was believed to dwell.

When Joshua takes command following the death of Moses, God promises to be with him wherever he goes (Joshua 1:5-6).  I’ve always interpreted this as a promise that God would be with Joshua personally, as we might interpret it today. And perhaps it was like that for him.  But it occurred to me (maybe because of where I was that morning) that the theological concept of God dwelling in individual hearts really didn’t exist when Joshua lived. I think it’s more likely that Joshua probably heard these words as a corporate promise from God—to be with the People of Israel always, i.e., through his Presence, which was located in the Tabernacle, which literally went with God’s People wherever they went.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Joshua likely wouldn’t have thought of God with him personally.  Is it possible that in today’s world where so much emphasis is place on God’s Presence with us personally (i.e., “in our hearts”) that we’ve gone to the other extreme?  Have we downplayed—or even forgotten—the corporate dimension of God with us.  Consider for example: Do you routinely think of  encountering God’s Presence when you go to worship on Sunday morning?  Should we “go to church” expecting such an encounter?

During the reign of King David, Israel enjoyed a period of stability and prosperity as a United Kingdom (all 12 tribes of Israel together), and the people decided a tent was no longer sufficient to house God’s Presence.  Although it’s never clear that God is fully behind this idea, the people insist that God needs a “permanent” home.  Discussion of the Temple starts toward the end of David’s reign, but the Temple isn’t built until David’s son Solomon becomes king (1 Kings 6). The Presence of God was conveyed to the Temple with much fanfare. 

Unfortunately, Israel’s “golden age” didn't last very long.  After King Solomon (and the seeds of division are planted long before that), Israel spiraled into civil war and split into a Northern and Southern Kingdoms—detailed in 1 & 2 Kings.  The Northern Kingdom (consisting of 10 of the 12 tribes) was largely wiped out by the Assyrians, leaving the smaller Southern Kingdom (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) with Jerusalem as capital.  A little later in history, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and take the best and brightest of Judah (the name for the Southern Kingdom) off into captivity and kill the rest.  During that invasion, the Temple was destroyed.  

It’s difficult to estimate how big an impact that had on the Jewish people.  While the Temple was rebuilt at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 6:13-18) it was never restored to its former glory.  Not only that, but the people themselves had been changed by their time in exile.  Years spent cut off from the Temple and all that was familiar to them forced them rethink where God’s Presence dwelled and what it meant to be a people with God.  During this time, the beginnings of synagogue worship were established. So, while the Second Temple is built, it never becomes the center of worship that the First Temple was. 

The Second Temple was expanded around the time of Jesus as part of a massive construction project by Herod the Great.  By the time Jesus was alive, the expanded Second Temple dominated the skyline of Jerusalem once more.  Meanwhile, God seemingly had been confined to the Temple again, with access strictly controlled by religious leaders called Pharisees—who imposed countless laws surrounding purity and access to God.  The Pharisees were allowed to continue their quaint religious practices as long as they cooperated with the Romans. So, in a way, since the Pharisees are puppets of Rome, Rome is ultimately controlling access to God, which presents a problem that Jesus (being himself God) can’t ignore. 

In a sense, when Jesus overturned the tables the Temple Courts (e.g., John 2:13-22), it was more than just the moneychanger’s stalls he was disrupting that day.  He was disrupting an entire corrupt system of worship. Symbolically, Jesus’s turning over the tables in God’s House represents setting God’s Presence free. (Not that is was ever really confined, but people had come to view it that way.)  Jesus also foreshadows that the building, as impressive a physical structure as it was, would one day lay in ruins.  The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD as retribution for an uprising by the Jewish people. (Interestingly, Jewish theology envisions a day when a massive Third Temple will be established where God 's Presence can once again dwell.)

In the New Testament, we see God’s Presence back on the move again.  This time, God is not carried in a yurt, or confined to a certain physical place where the people have to go to encounter God (Acts 17:24), as hinted at earlier, now God’s Presence dwells in the heart of every believer (1 Corinthians 6:19).  God, promises to follow us wherever we go.  At the Ascension, Jesus promises his followers he will be with them always, even to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20). No longer confined to a physical body, the Second Person of the Trinity once again is free to reign over Creation.  Jesus now has much more freedom of movement than when he was confined to a single human body. 

This freedom of movement is further enhanced through the action of the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit—who Jesus promised his followers would come and continue to instruct them, and did so dramatically on the day of Pentecost.  Scripture teaches us that the Trinity is not static, but dynamic, always on the move. (We draw it as a triangle, with each Person in a fixed place, but think of it more as a spinning triangle—like a fidget spinner—shown right). The movement of the Holy Spirit is often depicted as wind blowing or breath—or the flutter of dove’s wings. 

Last week was Trinity Sunday on the church's liturgical calendar, when we ponder the mysterious three-in-one nature of God.  The Father and the Son and Holy Spirit sometimes act as three distinct beings, but exist as a unity—e.g., described in John 14—and we who believe are drawn into that relationship.  Paul says frequently that Christ is in me and I am in Christ.  Ergo, where we go, God goes.  Jesus can literally be in any location where one of his followers is located.  As Eugene Petersen stated it in one of his book titles, “Christ plays in 10,000 places,” which I’d call a conservative estimate.

Which brings me back to the deck our yurt in Pennsylvania.  I wasn’t in church this past Sunday morning, but I was with God; I was in God’s Presence.  Now clearly the Pastor’s spouse is not advocating not attending church.  Quite the contrary.  The witness of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments is that God often shows up most powerfully when the People of God are gathered together—e.g., Pentecost.  Furthermore, I’m a bit dubious of the person who says, “Oh I don’t need to go to church; I experience God out in the world without organized religion.”  While I don’t discount the notion that organized religion has “problems,” or that it is possible to have profound encounters with God in isolation, my experience is that, in general, we are most able to discern God’s Presence in the world when we make a regular practice of gathering as a community to worship. It’s as if regular participation in corporate worship tunes our senses to “become more aware of God’s presence,” and “experience the glory of God’s goodness” when we are on our own in the world. Clearly, if God is in all and works through all, then it makes sense God is with me—and with you—wherever we find ourselves.  The question is the same as the one Jacob wrestled with: Are we aware enough to recognize it and respond?


*  In what setting(s) do you most naturally feel God’s Presence: In church?  Outside church?
 In what setting(s) would you like to be able to “become more aware” of God’s presence?
 In what ways to you “experience the glory of God’s goodness”?

[1]Technically, God’s Presence dwelled in the Ark of the Covenant, which was housed in the inner most part of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter—and only on the Day of Atonement. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

To My Daughter Hope Marie

To Hope Marie

I’ll confess up front, this is a different kind of a letter than the one I wrote your sister Rebecca a couple days ago—it’s more like an epistle.  How do I address the daughter I can’t see in the flesh?  You also celebrated your tenth birthday on May 2, but unlike your sister, we had no party, no cake, no pictures, to mark the passing of your milestone.  Hardly anyone, besides us, even mentions your name without prompting.  A vague shadow of your presence remains; it hovers over us, reminding us that someone is missing from this birthday celebration, and from every family celebration—and always will be.  We try to ignore the shadow as best we can, and focus on the light, but there’s no way to deny its presence completely. Sadly, all that we have that reminds us of your physical body are a few precious photographs of you in the NICU at Johns Hopkins, with your tiny body covered in tubes and wires. But a father never forgets his daughter; you live on in my memories. And so, on the tenth anniversary of your passing from life support to life eternal, I look back and reflect on the events that culminated in those 48 hours that changed me forever.  I wrote my thoughts down in a letter to you; although it seems maybe I wrote it for me, as much as for you.

I’ll certainly never forget all we did to make your life possible.  We wanted your brother Brady Benjamin to have a sibling.  Your mom had to go through IVF to have children, which was not easy for her.  Multiples can happen when one does IVF. It’s the risk one takes when multiple embryos are implanted, but this is what our reproductive endocrinologist recommended we do to give us the best chance to get pregnant. Our first IVF cycle resulted in only two embryos.  We’d implanted them both, and ended up pregnant with one child—your brother Brady.  So, in the end, after we prayed about how many embryos to transfer, we decided on two.  And this time we ended up with twins…  But here’s the thing, you and your sister were identical, which means you both came from the same embryo. I guess it goes to show, despite our human efforts to limit and control nature, God can still find a way if God desires.

After the initial shock of finding we were going to have twins wore off, we did our best to prepare, and everything seemed to be going well. The concern for identical twins that share a placenta, but have separate amniotic sacs, the way you and your sister did, is a condition called twin-to-twin transfusion (TTTF).  As I understand it, an imbalance in blood-flow between the babies develops during pregnancy, causing one twin to grow faster than the other, and placing both twins in jeopardy if not corrected—which is difficult and risky.  To guard against this concern, we had both your mom’s regular obstetrician and a perinatologist monitor you all constantly throughout her pregnancy. All seemed to go according to plan; the pregnancy went 35 weeks—which is considered full-term for twins. We went to the hospital that morning expecting to bring both you and your sister home.  The doctors had the same expectation; two bassinets were set up in our room at the hospital to receive our bundles of joy. The Noah’s Ark-themed nursery was ready at home, with two cribs set up. While we weren’t sure how to handle three children in the midst of our busy life, we trusted we would find our way, and tried to welcome the double blessing God had for it.

But of course, life had other plans.  It was anything but a routine delivery. On the outside you both looked perfect, identical copies of one another.  But it became evident almost from the moment of your birth, two minutes before your sister Rebecca, that on the inside, you were not well.  Subsequent scans revealed you had suffered catastrophic brain injury (essentially a stroke) sometime before birth. We will never know for sure—but medical science’s best guess is that, despite all that monitoring, TTTF was to blame.  You were the dominant twin, meaning you robbed blood from your sister, the donor twin, but in an ironic twist, this “dominance” placed you at greater risk for problems in utero.  You came out ruddy, almost purple, while your sister came out pale and anemic. It was almost a Jacob and Esau scenario, only you two were identical.  Rebecca spent a few days in the NICU, and then came home; you never came home.  

After two surreal days coming to grips with what was happening, your mom and I made the decision to remove life support. It was an excruciating choice for us, but to this day we believe it was the merciful choice for you.  I can only hope you understand. We didn’t want to see you suffer, darling Hope. Your quality of life would have been nil.  Loud, rattling, mechanical lungs breathed for you, but you never cried, you never opened your beautiful eyes.  Some of the best doctors in the world cared for you at Johns Hopkins.  They wouldn’t come out and say it, but your mother and I could read between the lines:  the likelihood was you were soon going to die, despite the medical science’s efforts to keep you alive.  If we had any doubts, the brain scans told us what remained unspoken.  Your beautiful body was but a shell.  Your spirit deserved to be free of those limits.  And we trust that it is as I write these words. We believe you now inhabit a new “body” free of the limitations of this life.

Ten years later, I remember all this like it was yesterday—and, most of all, I remember you. Maybe I go through a day or two not thinking of you consciously, but one never “gets over” the loss of a child. I have, however, moved on with living.  From early on we determined we would focus on life.  After all, we had your newborn sister to care for, and your brother was still a toddler, so those were pretty big motivators for us.  They forced us to focus on living when, some days, we would’ve rather curled up in the fetal position and cried. 

We’ve always tried to make sure that we remember you, and let your brother and sister know you were an important part of our story. We visit the place you are buried—and where your mom and I will one day rest—a few times a year, and always on this day (May 4), which we call Hope Day.  I this practice has been especially important for your sister, who has always been aware of your presence.  It’s been said identical twins have a special bond, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I think I am seeing it lived out. In some mysterious way, it seems to transcend the veil between heaven and earth. Becca has been feeling sad recently because you aren’t here, with her.  She clearly misses your presence. She even named a baby she received for her birthday Hope. We told her you would not want her to be sad. I think she understands that, but she still wishes you both could be having a birthday party together.  So do I.  

I too miss your physical presence in our life, Hope, but more than that, I miss what we don’t get to experience together.  In the face of Rebecca, we always see Hope; we see what you would have been physically as you grew.  However, unlike Rebecca, we don’t get to experience you as an individual or as your sister’s twin.  How would you and your sister have been the same?  How would you two have been different?  How would you have interacted with your brother? Would you and your sister have tried to pull the old “switcheroo” on your brother, or your parents at some point? As we watch your sister grow into a young woman, we grieve not only the earthly life you were denied, but also the experiences we all were denied because you didn’t live.  For example, someday, Lord willing, I will walk Rebecca down the aisle on her wedding day. I will never get that chance with you. Indeed, I think the whole world lost something because we lost our Hope.  

It’s funny the things that remind me of what I didn’t have a chance to experience.  I see a healthy set of twins with their parents, and I feel the tinge of envy for the experiences I was denied.  I want to stop them on the spot and interview them about what it’s like to have these two identical individuals living in their house.  And maybe it’s just because we’ve lost a twin, but gosh, it seems like multiple babies grow on trees.  I’ve seen more than one set of identical twins in the same place on more than one occasion.  I think: What is this God, sarcasm?

Sometimes I literally feel the missing weight of your presence.  Just the other night, for example, I was walking into the movie theater with Rebecca to see Infinity War.  As she often does (at least she still does it for now) she took my hand as we walked across the parking lot.  For an instance, I was aware of a weight imbalance.  I realized in that moment, had you lived, I would have a daughter pulling on both arms.  I wonder what that would have been like? 

How do I close a letter to the daughter not with me? This writer has tried to say something, but I feel like words always fall short of all this experience was—and still is.  I think what I most want to say is that your life—though it was brief—mattered immensely to us, and to many.  While I don’t believe God causes tragedies to happen,  I do think God uses all things for the good of those who love God.  I would never have chosen to lose my precious daughter.  Nevertheless, because I lost you, I experienced growth that might not have happened if you had lived. 

Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you.
I have been changed for good.
For Good”, Idina Menzel

Thank you, my darling Hope, for the “handprints you left on my heart”.  Happy Hope Day.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

To My Daughter Rebecca May As You Turn 10

Dear Rebecca May

Dancing as always been a thing for us.  When you were small, I would pick you up in my arms and twirl you around singing “Re-becca! Re-becca! Re-becca! …”  [Sung to tune of Mexican Hat Dance].  I frequently sang you a song by Plumb as a lullaby, promising that you would be “safe in my arms.” I still do it occasionally.  (It’s hard to live up that promise.  Ultimately, I know it’s God—not me—that keeps us all safe in His arms.)  A couple years ago, we even did a very special daddy-daughter dance together.  The lyrics of the song by Steven Curtis Chapman that we danced to said: “I’ll dance with Cinderella, while she is here in my arms. Because I know all too soon, the clock will strike midnight, and she’ll be gone.”

Well, it may not be midnight yet,  but it feels like its at least 11:00 PM.  The years go by fast!  Seems like just yesterday I was holding you in my arms as an infant.  The day you and your sister were born is etched in my memoryforever. But now I can barely physically lift you anymore.  We come to a milestone in your young life, as you turn ten years old. How is it possible both my children are in double digits? When did that happen?

Your mom and I are so thrilled to celebrate your big day.  We couldn’t be more proud of the young lady you are becoming.  You are so smart and doing well in school.  You are creative, always imagining and dreaming of who you might be.  (We’ll have to deal with the creative remnant scattered about our property.)  One day you are a rock star, another day you’re the mother of a growing family of American Girl dolls, another you are a NASA Astronaut.  Never stop dreaming.  Whatever you dream, with God’s help, you could become.  You may not do it all, but nevertheless you will persist. Of this, I have no doubt.  

Did you know the name Rebecca means “to tie” or “to bond together” or “to moderate”; also “captivating”, or we might say, “spellbinding”.  I think your name fits you well.  In the Bible, Rebecca was the wife of Isaac, and the mother of Jacob and Esau.  Jacob and Esau were bound together as twins, just like you and Hope were—and are, in ways I probably don’t understand. 

You bind together so much in your life Rebecca. You gather friends around you wherever you go. You also captivate those around you.  Your life carries a sparkle.  I see it when I’m with you, whether we’re working on math homework together or I’m watching you play softball, it’s fun to see the way you enjoy life.  Your laughter is contagious; your spirit it tenacious.  You live life to the full.  Never stop.

One website says, “Rebecca is the name reserved only for the genuine and best women on Earth. They are REALLY cute, beautiful, very smart, driven, have a wonderful and playful personality, and have this cute awkwardness about them. They are fun-loving, adventurous, silly, and always suspicious of everyone. Rebecca has the most amazing eyes ever.”  

I'd say that’s a pretty good summary of my girl! Especially the part about the eyes.  Your "baby blues" have distinguished you from early on.  Those gentle, kind, and loving eyes that can convey so much emotion.  The same eyes that flutter playfully at times roll disdainfully at others—just like your mom’s.  

The website went on to say: “Rebeccas can be confusing sometimes and they can make people go crazy sometimes, but in the end, it turns out everything they do that makes you go crazy just makes you like them just that much more. They're much more than meets the eye.”  

My darling Becca, you are indeed more than meets the eye. We often say you carry the spirit of two within you. By now you are keenly aware that you share this birthday with another. Recently, you told us you were sad because you miss Hope; even last night you were crying. I can only imagine the special bond you and your identical twin sister share even now. I wish Hope could be here to celebrate her birthday too. But I bet she is happy in heaven.  (I’m told parties here on Earth pale in comparison to the heavenly banquet.)  I think you listen to your heart, Hope will tell you to enjoy the day for both of you. 

Before long, some young man (probably more than one!) will tap me on the shoulder and ask if they can have this dance with you.  Then, in an instant it seems, the bell tolls, the stroke of midnight, and "you'll be gone".   Of course, when that time comes I’ll step aside as graciously as I can.  I'll have tears I'm sure, but I'll rejoice you've found a good dance partner for life's journey, and I'll reluctantly let them dance with my girl.  But they better take good care of you or they'll answer to big dad!

Beautiful Becca May, I hope you always remember that—after God—your dad was your first dance partner.   While I can’t hold you in my arms physically anymore, I’ll still do my utmost to keep you safe for as long as I am able.  Our relationship will grow and change, as it should, but I’ll always try to be there for you.  I’m sure God has a special destiny for you, and I look forward to seeing what you become. 

Your mom and I wish you the happiest of birthdays!


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Turning Overflowing Lives into Life Overflowing

There was an elderly woman named Virginia in one of our former churches who once said during a meeting, as we were listing things that required attention: When will it ever end?!  (She has sense passed, so I suspect maybe she now knows the answer to her question.)  But my wife and I often quote sweet Virginia when we're dealing with life’s seemingly endless “to-do” list, balancing jobs, children, ministry, and whatever else a given week brings that we didn’t plan for on Monday morning.   

On one hand, I think maybe the answer to Virginia’s question is: Never.  Now, I admit, that sounds a bit depressing at first; but think about it.  We’re alive, and life by its nature is dynamic and active. If we aren’t constantly moving and changing, we begin to decay and die.

But at the same time, I relate to the angst in that beloved saint’s question.  The struggle is real. I’m a task-oriented guy, and I too long to “complete the list” and be finished, with no more worries.  But it never seems to happen—this side of eternity anyway.  

Jesus once said to his followers: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly”—John 10:10. Abundance conveys a sense of overflowing or filled. What was Jesus saying to them—and to us—through these words?  Jesus, being God, knew we’d all be living full lives.  In some sense, that’s the nature of life as a human being on this third rock from the Sun.  But I think he was promising something more than a full life; he was promising life to the full.  

Ask anyone how they are doing these days and before the conversation gets too far you are likely to hear: I’m very busy.  Very few people are bored these days, that’s for sure.  Life keeps us hopping to say the least as we seek to satisfy all the callings on our life:  e.g., spouse, parent, friend, church member, employee.  We’re all living full—if not overflowing—lives; but are we living life to the full? How do we find what Jesus promised he came to give his followers amid an ├╝berbusy life?  Can it be done, or are we destined to struggle with a nagging sense of unfulfillment all our days. 

I believe this is where call (or vocation) comes into the equation.  Yes, there are many calls placed on us, and we have a responsibility to respond to them.  However, there’s something unique that each of us was put on this Earth to do.  We can and will do other things out of necessity, or even out of choice, but we won’t feel fully alive until, in the words of Elrond from Return of the King, we “become who we were born to be“. The Elven Lord’s words resonate with those of the saints of Christendom.

“Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee”—Augustine
“The glory of God is a [human being] fully alive…’— Irenaeus

We find abundant living as we seek out who God created us to be—and once we discern it, we seek to become it, with all of our heart, mind, and strength.

I can speak with most authority of my own experience. I am fairly certain at this point that my call is to storytelling.  If you are reading this article, you most likely know that I like to write.  Some of you have even told me that you enjoy what I write.  Thank you for your kind words.   It’s always an encouragement to hear from others that what we think we enjoy doing is resonating with others.  

In an essay about vocation, Natalia Ginzburg once wrote: "Words are the only tools that some to fit in my hands.  When I've tried to do any other kind of work, it has been with discomfort and ineptitude to the point of comedy."  That certainly rings true with a guy like me.  While I envy what some “handymen” (I think of Neil and Phil at my church, for example) can do with a set of tools, it’s just not me.  When something breaks in my house, I usually have break down and call someone and pay them to fix it.  Like Ginzburg, the “tool” I seem to wield most efficiently is a pen—or, more often these days, a keyboard.   
So, writer’s write. Go forth and write stories… End of article. 

I wish it was that straightforward.  

Life is something of a paradox.  The very raw material that shapes me and the stories I write is the same substance that opposes my efforts, and makes it a challenging to “have time” to get the stories written.  

Nature itself seems to generate forces that resist unimpeded flows of energy.  In mechanics, there is friction, which works to slow an object in motion, and in electronics, there is resistance, which opposes flow of electrical current through a circuit.  My experience is that there is a similar “force” that opposes spiritual growth.   If you believe as I do, that there is an Enemy, who works counter to the interests of God, then it stands to reason that this entity is the ultimate source of spiritual resistance.  If it’s true that we are most fully alive—and living life to the full as Jesus intended—when we are living out our call, then our Enemy has a vested interest in us not achieving that state.  It should therefore come as no surprise that our endeavors to pursue our call would face stiff opposition, or resistance.  Things that at first seem like random acts that happen in life may in fact be intentional (coordinated) opposition from the Enemy of our Soul, who is threatened by what we will become if we were able to more intentionally focus on the pursuit of our call. Does what I describe here seem “over the top” spiritualizing of random events, or does it resonate with your personal experience?

Last year I took an online Spiritual Writing taught by a Catholic author named Jessica Mesman Griffith.  During one of the weeks, we discussed “Writing as Work and Vocation”.  In her lecture, Jessica shared about her own sense of being called to write. Her words resonate deeply with my own experience.  She talked about how she has known the call was there since she was very young.  So have I.  She said it wasn't until much later that she realized writing could be a spiritual calling. Me too.   

She also said in her lecture that even though she knows she is called to write, that doesn't mean it automatically happens without her putting forth effort.  “Writing for me even if it comes 'naturally' in that it uses an inborn, God-given facility and love for storytelling, requires single-mindedness."   

Jessica’s words here remind me of a Dallas Willard quote: “Grace is not opposed to effort.  Grace is opposed to earning.  Earning is an attitude; effort is an action.”   

Life owes us nothing; we don’t earn our call; we must put forth effort to achieve our dreams.

Fulfilling our call usually doesn’t just happen at random. The natural flow of life tends to drift toward disorder—and away from our destiny.  We need to take intentional action to move toward it—and expect to encounter resistance when we do.

As Jessica put it in her lecture: "Vocations are not necessarily easy to live into.  The one called to priesthood still enters the priesthood and does so at great personal cost.  So does the one called to Olympic athletics."  So true...  Pursuing our call—whatever it is, will be costly.  

Consider for example the call all believers have in common, the universal call to “carry our cross and follow Jesus”—Luke 9:23-24.  Jesus warns his early followers that following through on that call is going to be hard.   The road will rarely be easy, and followers need to “count the cost” before they commit to the journey—Luke 14:25-34.  And despite that warning from the start, when the going got tough, many followers turned back—although the Twelve were among those who persisted—John 6:60-66.  But on that fateful night in the garden when Jesus was arrested, even his closest friends denied him, betrayed him, and abandoned him, fleeing into the Jerusalem night.  Of course, that was not the end of the story; there was redemption after the resurrection, but in that difficult moment, following through with their calling to follow Jesus “to the end” proved too difficult—Mark 14:43-51.

Likewise, pursuing our individual calls will be difficult… but is also worthwhile. When I get in the flow of writing it’s hard to describe how it feels.  The Universe feels “right” for a while.  Time still flows around me but I can lose track.  (In fact, it’s happening right now as I write this article!)  For better or worse, I am completely absorbed in my world. But it’s hard to sustain that state for very long without some external call intruding—sometimes it’s literally a phone call from my wife.

.Jessica said that she frequently uses Ginzburg’s words to remind herself why she does what she does:  "My vocation is to write." Others have expressed to her that they benefit from what she labors to write.   I often try to remind myself of the same thing: My vocation is to tell stories through writing.  When I want to throw in the towel, I think of kind words from people (at my church) like Adelia, Lucy, and Nancy, and others, who say they like reading what I write—and even miss it when I haven’t written in a while.  It’s moments like this when I remember that my call to write not just for me. It benefits others—and ultimately my being more fully alive is to the glory of God. 

I am Facebook friends with Jessica.  I know she is raising two children just like me, and has daily challenges she has to deal with as she tries to be a writer.  She also has to pay bills, like I do.  She gets paid to do writing that requires significant amounts of her time and energy, but doesn't necessarily fulfill her as much.  Oh, how I relate to this! 

While the writing (and editing) I do for NASA “pays the bills”, and I find some fulfillment doing it, I am still left with that internal restlessness, a pervasive sense that there is something more God has for me—but with precious little time and energy to pursue my dreams.  There’s this constant struggle to “find time to write”, but then when I do take time to write, I feel guilty because I feel a bit selfish spending time writing, that I could have spent doing something “more productive”.  Indeed, it can be a vicious cycle! 

Jessica’s story serves as an inspiration for me, because despite resistance in her life, she has managed to overcome the resistance in her life and publish several books—and teaches Spiritual Writing courses.  Her story is uniquely hers—but elements of it are similar to my own.  She has turned spiritual writing into what she does for a living.  I would like to do the same thing.  I could see myself teaching classes in writing as Jessica does, but one must “earn” the right to do so by being a published author, and for now that dream remains elusive.  I know that with God all things are possible—but I know it’s going to require effort on my part too.  This is the growing edge for me, where the rubber is hitting the road and the resistance seems overwhelming some days.  The dream is real; the means to have it come true exists; but my willingness to “follow-through” and build a bridge between dreams and means via intention seems lacking.  

So this is a bit of my story, and the specific details of your story will be different.  But I have a hunch many of you might relate to this struggle to turn our overflowing lives into life overflowing. I think it's part of being human. Perhaps you get hung up at the same point that I do? Or maybe you have a different take?  Do you even feel God calls you at all, or is that just for certain special professions like priests and pastors?

May God help us persevere, despite the very real resistance, to become who we were born to be.  

Thursday, April 12, 2018

This is Not the End: One Woman’s Tale of Surviving—and Thriving—After an Unexpected Loss

I have recently read Sarah Burke’s book, This is Not the End: Reflections on Finding Hope During the End of the Marriage. While, as the title suggests, this book is most directly relevant to those who have experienced the loss of a marriage, I think her writing will speak to anyone who has experienced an unexpected loss of any sort.  It certainly spoke to someone like me, who has never lost a marriage—but has lost a child.  As Sarah says in the book: “Loss is loss is loss; the only difference is there’s yours there’s mine.”  

In the book, Sarah shares her experience of losing her marriage to her high-school sweetheart and “best friend” unexpectedly after over 13 years together, which thrust her into an unchosen journey on which she rediscovered the “story of her”, and found hope—and God—along the way, sometimes in surprising places.  She describes how she grieved her loss, began pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, and create new ones, as she moved forward into a new day with brand new hopeful possibilities.  Throughout the book, Sarah mixes in anecdotes from her own personal story with practical wisdom applicable, not just to loss of marriage, but to all types of loss. For example, when we experience loss, she encourages us to shift from asking the unanswerable question of, why, to for what purpose

One theme that Sarah drives home throughout the book is the idea of choosing to live well. Almost from the moment a tragedy happens, we have a choice as to how we respond.  In fact, Sarah describes it as making a series of positive choices in a “million tiny moments” that make up our life story—i.e., choosing almost minute-by-minute to become better instead of bitter.  From early on, she had a sense that “this would not be the end of her", and she set about making it a reality through self-care practices like exercise, journaling, prayer, and creating beauty.  She also explains how her children have been a huge motivating factor in her making good choices.  (I recall feeling similar after our loss; as much as we grieved and felt like we wanted to curl up and die when our daughter died, we had two other children that needed us to keep living.)  

One specific choice that Sarah made in the book that impressed me was to share only the details of her personal experience that we the reader needed to know to help us understand her situation and form connections to our own circumstances.  In doing so, I think she showed immense respect for her ex-husband. She had every reason choose the bitter path; she could have easily portrayed him as the sole villain of this story.  But over time she came to realize that it takes two to make a marriage—and it takes two to break one.  She chose what I consider to be the better path, keeping details about why the marriage ended more general, and focusing mostly on her own experience of the events that transpired.   I think others will benefit from that choice.  By the end, she seems even able to look back on the positive memories of their time together and feel grateful—no matter how her husband chose to reinterpret them.

Surely, as Sarah makes clear in her book, we will all have moments when we succumb to bitterness, for there is no denying the very real pain felt over such a tragic loss.  We need space to shed tears for what we have lost and to let ourselves feel whatever we feel.  We need people with whom we can be real.  However, hopefully our overall life trajectory is toward the better.  Sarah explains how she had to risk being vulnerable to others, and it was not necessarily easy, but it was only by doing so that she discovered God's grace through the kindness and compassion of others, and found she was "not the only one".  While her journey of grief was indeed unique and only she could walk it, there were others who have walked similar paths, and they could serve as guides if she allowed them to do so.  

The chapters I liked most come toward the end of the book, where Sarah discusses what here experience has taught her about Grief (Chapter 9) and Forgiving When You Can’t Forget (Chapter 10). Sadness, she reminds us, has its place in life, right alongside joy. Sorrow and love were comingled on the brow of the suffering Jesus, and the boundary between them in life can sometimes be very thin.  (This was certainly true of my personal experience of sudden loss.)   We must learn to welcome both into our lives—even when we didn’t invite the sadness. 

Regarding forgiveness, Sarah thought she had to forgive before healing could start.  Her experience taught her that it is “an inextricable part of the whole process of healing”.  Ultimately it is God who forgives, and forgiving sets the forgiver free from the burden of anger, hatred, and resentment, just as much as it frees the person forgiven of the burden of their sin against the forgiver.

Then comes what might be the most powerful chapter to me: No More Sacred Cows (Chapter 11). In this chapter, Sarah shares some very practical advice to married couples, that she has clearly learned via the “school of hard knocks”.  She explains how she naively assumed her marriage was a sacred cow.  Other marriages might struggle and fail, but hers would be different. After all, she and her husband were “best friends”, so they would surely rise above any challenges they encountered together.  Sadly, she had to find out the hard way that she was wrong.  Her partner changed, but she didn’t notice.  They were no longer on the same page.  Frankly, it seems to me that he was in a different book!  But by the time she figured that out, it was too late to save her marriage.  She reflects on the “red flags” she either didn’t notice or chose to ignore.  Her rumination provides a font of wisdom for those fortunate to be happily married.  In short, she reminds us to cherish our marriage and never take it for granted.  Both partners must be willing to fight for it each day.  (In her case, her husband ceased to be willing to fight for their marriage.)  We should find reasons to celebrate one another.   We also need to trust our instincts when something is “not right”, and have the courage to have the difficult conversation with our spouse, as opposed to staying quiet in an effort to “keep the peace”. 

Sarah’s tale reminds us that loss is a unique journey while at the same time it is a universal experience.  

There were moments where I read a passage describing some aspect of Sarah’s experience of losing a marriage and it resonated with my own experience of losing a child—as some of my many margin notes can attest. Overall I enjoyed reading This is Not the End…, and I recommend it to any who want to learn to live well after an unexpected loss.  I hope that it speaks to in your unique tale of loss as it did to me in mine.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Easter: The Lenten Journey Ends... The Journey to Galilee Begins

I had a wonderful Lent and Holy Week experience.  After beginning Lent with a community Ash Wednesday service on Valentine’s Day at another United Methodist church in our community, our church (Good Shepherd UMC in Waldorf, MD) spent six weeks in worship intentionally journeying closer to the cross via prayer.  In successive weeks, we looked at prayer in the context of community, sacrifice, service, transformation (discipleship), and perseverance.  We also invited people to participate in the practice of prayer both individually and corporately.  In lieu of our regular 11 AM Adult Sunday School class I normally attend, two of us committed to be present in the Chapel each week during Lent, for any who wanted to come and pray.  Each week we had at least two—and wherever two or more are gathered, Christ promises to be there.  (And he’s there when we’re praying on our own too!) 

To start out Holy Week, on Palm Sunday, we considered the prayer of Hosanna—God save us—which can be both a joyful and anguished prayer.  We thought about the cries for salvation in our world today, including the voices heard at the March for Our Lives the day before, where thousands of young people waved banners and shouted out to be saved from the constant threat of gun violence in our society. The service began with joyful songs of “Hosanna”, but by the end the mood had shifted.  We ended with a much more subdued call to “Lead Us to the Cross”, foreshadowing the events of the coming week.

We next gathered as a community on Holy Thursday to reflect on scenes form the Last Week of Jesus’ earthly life. This year, we focused on the Upper Room and eavesdropped on some of the conversation around the table on that fateful night, just before Jesus was arrested. We got insight into what might have been going through the minds of Peter, James, John, and Judas, as they sat and listened to Jesus speak.  We stopped to ponder how we are like the disciples, who would soon betray, deny, and abandon Jesus, their teacher and friend. We watched as, much to Peter’s astonishment, Jesus stooped to wash his dirty feet, willingly doing the task even the lowest servant tried to avoid. We contemplated the kind of King who conquered not by a sword, but by a towel—and ultimately by dying on a cross. We saw Judas depart the fellowship, slipping away into darkness, as the others wondered: Where’s he going?  

Then on Good Friday, we picked up where we left off the night before.  There was a Cross Walk, which this year began at an elementary school near our church (Arthur Middleton Elementary).  Given how much it is needed right now, with a shooting at Great Mills High School in neighboring St. Mary’s county having occurred less than a week earlier, we wanted to take time to intentionally pray for our schools. Then, like the army outside the city of Jericho, we literally marched around the school in prayer asking God’s Spirit to bring down “walls” of division—as only God can.  As we walked, I thought of song lyrics:
I soften my heart like clay on a wheel; your hands hold me firm in the spin.
Your grace is a powerful force I can feel; the Kingdom of Heaven within.
And it will change the world by a rugged cross. an empty tomb… a bridge across
All barriers keeping us apart.  I open up my heart. 
—“I Open My Heart”, Brian McLaren

We then walked from the school up the corner of one of the main roads through Waldorf (Smallwood Drive) lifting high the cross as a visible symbol of God’s Presence in our community.  We stopped at the intersection to pray for all churches (and other faith communities) to work together to confront the complex issues that our community struggles to adequately address. It was inspiring to see several of our youth taking time to come, and not only to come, but to choose to participate in carrying the cross.  

Along the way, I saw a sign that said: “Hidden Entrance”.  I thought it was somehow a fitting message for Good Friday.  The cross seems such an unlikely entry ramp the Kingdom of God, yet by willingly submitting to it, Jesus opened the door for all to smoothly merge into life with God.  

It is one of life’s great ironies that often the gateway to new life is only found after we pass through death—with no guarantee of what waits for us on the “other side”, but with a firm promise that God has been where we are, and will be with usthrough it all. 

Our mid-day procession continued down Smallwood Drive, ending at the sanctuary of Good Shepherd, where we gathered for a time of informal worship.  We heard the three clergy that participated read the Passion story from Mark’s Gospel.  Then, we were invited into a time of individual prayer at the altar with “Jesus Remember Me” playing softly in the background.  

We returned to that same sanctuary on Friday evening, where our youth led us on the final leg of our journey to the cross.  There were a series reflective readings, dramas, and music to help us enter into and meditate upon Jesus’s final moments of life, right up to when he said, “It is finished!” and gave up his Spirit.  The Roman Centurion, the Pharisee, the Thief on the Cross, and Barabbas pondered together how Jesus died for my sin, your sin—our sin.  We were reminded that: By his wounds, we are healed…We departed in silence.  
Then came Holy Saturday. This is the day we Protestants aren’t always quite sure what to do with.  We don’t have a formal Easter Vigil at Good Shepherd, like some churches. However, this year our family did our own informal vigil as, after a busy day that included baseball and softball practices for the kids, and sermon preparation for my wife, we went to a local theater (the Port Tobacco Players) in La Plata, MD, to attend an evening performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar”.  It wasn’t the whole Bible story like the Easter Vigil; nevertheless, it was an interesting way to get a modern musical interpretation of the Gospel story as we awaited the coming day.  (And, as it happened, we got an encore production of the same show on live TV Sunday night!)

Then, finally, Easter Morning was here!  There is no Sunrise Service in our community, but we still rise early to have time for our family’s morning Easter basket tradition before church.  Then it’s off to church—like most every Sunday for the Wards. But this wasn’t just any Sunday; it was Easter.  When I walked into church and saw the sanctuary, which had been stripped bare two days ago when I last saw it, with only a crown of thorns on the altar, now fully decorated, with white paraments on the pulpit and lectern, festive banners adorning the walls, and purple and yellow pansies lining the altar (no Easter Lilies due to allergy sensitivities), I experienced a sense of exhalation.  The strife is o’er the battle done the Lenten Journey is finally done.  Alleluia! 

From the “Easter Glory” introit to kick things off, to “He Lives!” at the end of the second service, it was a truly great day of worshipping the Risen Lord. I don’t know if Sunday’s worship would have impacted me the same, had I not been there for all the events of Holy Week leading up to this moment. I doubt it…  I don’t know if it mattered that I had had voluntarily chosen to fast from Friday evening until Sunday morning, after having done so on the six Fridays of Lent.  I also don’t know if engaging in prayer for six weeks made a difference.  I‘d like to think those practices had an impact, but I know the practices themselves aren’t the point—I engage in them to create space for God to work as God chooses, and when God chooses. All I can say for sure is that Easter touched me this year in a way that maybe it doesn’t always, and I’m grateful for that. 

We met my parents for lunch after church and had a nice meal together.  And then we came home and engaged in a time-honored tradition among clergy (and their families) once Easter Sunday is done: Relaximus maximus.  The responsibilities were now finished and we could finally exhale…  And exhale we did; and soon we were doing so repeatedly—which quickly led to extended contemplation of our inner eyelids.  

Proclaiming new life—resurrection—seems to demand a great deal of energy.  Once Easter is done, we feel emptied spiritually, and in need of rest.  

Those that have been active participants in the events of Lent and Holy Week know well the feeling I describe.  The Monday after Easter is usually a day of well-deserved rest for clergy. Likewise, the Sunday after Easter tends to be a day of rest for laity   We call it low Sunday because it is marked by a pronounced drop in church attendance. Frankly, many clergy plan a vacation day for the Sunday after Easter.  

Theologian N.T. Wright argues that the weeks following Easter is the last time when the Church ought to be “on holiday”.  Wright says, “Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as the one-day happy ending tacked on to 40 days of fasting and gloom?” He says that Christians should be as joyful and celebratory in the days following Easter as we are penitent and contemplative during the season of Lent leading up to it.[1] While I think ole “Tom” is fighting a somewhat uphill battle here to turn the tide of years of tradition of “taking off” the Sunday after Easter, I also think he has a point.  While taking some time to exhale following a busy Holy Week is more than justified, we need to remember that a while the Lenten Journey ends on Easter, another journey is just beginning—and if we want to find the Risen Lord, we will have to keep walking.  

Such was the case for the first followers of Jesus. Their journey didn’t end on Easter. No, it was really just beginning.  The next step of their journey is implied in the cryptic message the angel gives to the women who first discover the tomb is miraculously empty: 

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. … But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told youMark 16:6-7

Surely, the disciples were tired too, after all they had been through in the Last Week—and in the last couple years walking the road with Jesus.  They didn’t necessarily understand yet the implications of all that was happening on Easter.  Waking up the morning after, they must have wondered if it was all a dream:  Was Jesus really alive out there somewhere?  They weren’t sure, but they wanted to find out, and that meant they would have to keep walking—to Galilee. 

The disciples’ summons is our summons. If we want to see the Risen Lord, we too must continue the journey to “Galilee” where he waits for us.  
 Along the way, Jesus appeared to the disciples on several occasions: e.g., on the Road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-31]; in a locked room in Jerusalem [Luke 24:36-49 and John20:19-23]; to doubting Thomas [John 20:24-28]; at the lakeshore while several of them were fishing [John 21:1-14]; and to Peter, for his “restoration” [John 21:15-24].  The lectionary for the Easter Season touches upon some of these encounters.  The 50-day post-Easter journey ultimately leads us to Pentecost—the day we celebrate the “birthday of the Church”, when the Holy Spirit comes with power to the believers gathered in Jerusalem.  But that story is for another day…

For now, enjoy a well-deserved rest this week if you so choose.  Take some time to exhale, then come back renewed to join us as on our post-Easter journey at Good Shepherd (or wherever you worship). I pray that, like the disciples, we too will have our own memorable encounters with the Risen Lord in the weeks ahead.  Maybe, like those disciples long ago, we’ll encounter Jesus along the way, in some places we never expected to find him.  We might even struggle to recognize him at first as they did.  But as we walk with him, and especially when we sit down to break bread with him, our hearts are strangely warmed, and our eyes are opened.  It begins to dawn on us that it is indeed the same Jesus we knew and loved before the crucifixion—and yet he is different somehow...  We can't quite put our finger on exactly what is different... All we can say for sure is that resurrection seems to have changed him... us... everything...

[1]See N.T. Wright,Surprised by Hope(Harper One, 2008) p. 256.

Pondering the Patterns of God's Garden

Creation is messy… Creation sometimes appears random. Until you look more closely… I have the largest flower bed on our cul de sac—ma...